While remakes of film classics are generally a lousy idea (Exhibit A: Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), George W. Bush’s America seems a more than apt time and place for Jonathan Demme to re-tackle The Manchurian Candidate. And, while there’s no scene herein as memorable as the brainwashing in the original 1962 film, the Denzel version actually turned out to be a decent night at the movies, despite a failure to capitalize fully on the potential of the source material and the histrionics of Meryl Streep.
For those looking for quality Bush-bashing from this project, there are some nods in your direction. This version of the film takes place in a post-9/11 election year when “security” is definitely the watchword of the electorate. And Manchurian Global, the new Big Bad for these post-Communist times, clearly “Harkens” to Halliburton and its ilk. Unfortunately, however, most of the politics in this movie aren’t very well thought-out. For example, this would seem a perfect cinematic vehicle to skewer the newsmedia for its inane and/or atrocious political coverage these days. But almost all of the political scenes here — conventions, talk shows, speeches, and whatnot — come off half-baked and unrealistic. Liev Schreiber is undoubtedly a good actor, but it’s hard to imagine him winning a congressional seat as portrayed here, much less the vice-presidency. Speaking of which, the convention backroom scene at the beginning seemed woefully out of date, as by now it should be clear to anybody that any political party worth its salt would have picked a ticket before their Big Show. In sum, most of the politics here seem like plot points to move the story along, when with just a little more tweaking they could have made for some really devastating satire.
Still, The Manchurian Candidate is an entertaining ride, in no small part due to several quality performances. The characters from the original Candidate are scrambled in this version, but remain more or less intact, with Denzel as Sinatra, Liev Schreiber as Lawrence Harvey, Kimberly Elise as Janet Leigh, and Meryl Streep as Angela Lansbury. (Alas, no Queen of Diamonds.) All in all, I’d say most of this bunch do a solid job (particularly an almost-unrecognizable Jeffrey Wright as Cpl. Melvin)…with the very notable exception of Meryl Streep. I’m not sure what she was going for here — some sort of uber-Karen Hughes or something, I guess — but she’s more over the top than Hoo-ah Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. At one point in the middle third, she even out-JonVoights Jon Voight, which I didn’t know was possible. While everyone else seems to be working hard to make the film seem remotely plausible, despite all the talk of implants and such (i mean, why bother with implants when you can just throw up a malleable dupe like Dubya?), Streep seems to be just playing it for camp. (It didn’t help that her first speech, in the aforementioned smoke-filled room scene, is completely hamhanded and improbable…however the choice of a veep goes down, I highly doubt it goes down like this.)
All in all, The Manchurian Candidate is worth seeing, but it’s nowhere near the league of the original. Which is too bad, really, because I think with just a little more effort, this could have been quite something.