> Volume 6 > Number 30


Jonathan Demme

Denzel Washington
Meryl Streep
Liev Schreiber
Jeffrey Wright
Kimberly Elise
Jon Voight
Ted Levine

Release: 30 Jul. 04

The Manchurian Candidate


Jonathan Demme, who did gangbusters remaking Charade two years ago with The Truth About Charlie, evidently let the adulation go to his head. Instead of following it up with another noble attempt at commercial filmmaking, he chose to go with the decidedly ignoble: he remade a part of the cinematic canon. Though not quite as reprehensible as remaking Psycho, his decision to dance on top of John Frankenheimer somewhat fresh grave by remaking the director’s masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate, comes across as an especially arrogant thing to do. Whatever chances he had at making an interesting film about the malleability of modern-day politics were tossed to the wayside when he chose to take it straight from George Axelrod’s screen adaptation of the Richard Condon novel.

Choosing to encircle Desert Storm and corrupt corporations now that the communist threat of the original is out of style, this Manchurian Candidate is more in-your-face than Frankenheimer’s vision. The broad strokes of traditional thriller storytelling set beside truly original set pieces are inverted by Demme’s need to lionize and villainize characters at key moments and his hesitancy to let the actors do their own work. Only Meryl Streep, channeling Angela Landsbury’s pitch-perfect antecedent, delivers any semblance of a multi-layered performance. Otherwise, the screen is crowded with actors like Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber gawking at the camera.

Furthermore, the whole work seems to exist in a 2008 campaign overwrought with bipolar politicians unable to create clear, concise cases for themselves that do not go against their previous statements. So intent is Demme to make sure that no political party is implicated in the film, the parties sound both Republican and Democratic talking points -- sometimes they’re John Kerry before Howard Dean become the frontrunner, other times they’re Kerry after the Dean rise. Like the breath of fresh air the Vermont upstart was to that race, his cinematic equivalent, a Connecticut progressive played by Jon Voight, is just as important and no less wasted.

I know that the easy way for people to discredit my opinion is to say that I’m merely throwing sour grapes at a film I was destined to dislike because they’re remaking a favorite. Perhaps there’s some truth to this -- I cannot be sure -- but I do know that I at least wanted something new to come from the remake, whether it be in the justification or the intensity of its themes. This only film tinkers with the original's finale enough to turn it into a variation on the Hollywood blockbuster conventions, losing everything in a bit of inept genre boosting. The mentality that made this work so commanding in 1963 was built on the worries of a populace that even an implausible thriller could turn out true. In 2004, the naïve mentality is gone, and all that remains are the improbable elements

©2004, David Perry,, 23 July 2004