Remaking classic films is almost invariably a fool's errand, but over the past few years, director Jonathan Demme has signed on to some particularly unlikely projects. First, he remade the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn vehicle Charade as The Truth About Charlie, with Mark Wahlberg in the Grant role, and now he's remade 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, arguably the pinnacle of Cold War thrillers, for a post-Cold War era. Shockingly, he's pulled it off, replicating the original's tricky feat of investing a paranoid plot with timeliness, psychological complexity, sociopolitical acumen, and almost frightening conviction.
At times suggesting Fahrenheit 9/11 remade as a superb political thriller, Demme's update casts Denzel Washington as a Gulf War veteran haunted by nightmares involving fellow veteran Liev Schreiber, the too-perfect scion of a prominent political dynasty and the son of power-mad senator Meryl Streep, an Oedipal nightmare by way of Hillary Clinton. When Washington discovers that he's not the only member of his platoon haunted by sinister dreams, he begins to uncover a conspiracy leading to a Halliburton-like multinational corporation and high-tech brainwashing.
As in John Frankenheimer's original, The Manchurian Candidate's plot is pure pulp, farfetched and paranoid but rich with metaphorical connotations: Brainwashing stands in for the perverse conditioning central to both warfare and politics, taken to its nightmare extreme. Leading a fine cast, Washington lends a haunted, poignant quality to a character for whom the past is never quite past, while Schreiber nails both his character's patrician creepiness and the lonely emptiness at the core of his being.
In The Manchurian Candidate, the Cold War's real victor is the corporate oligarchy, not democracy, and that makes Schreiber's tragic politician an allegorical version of the Manchurian candidates currently occupying countless political offices. In the original film, communism and capitalism battled for the world's soul, but in the remake, corporations and their proxies have long since won the war.