The Manchurian Candidate has a nasty knack of reflecting reality, whether with Frank Sinatra
or Denzel Washington in the lead. This remake is all too scarily like the present, reports Phillip McCarthy.
Director Jonathan Demme
Stars Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber
There's war in Iraq, turbulence from Afghanistan to Indonesia and all sorts of electronic chatter about terrorist plots. There's an American presidential election with a military hero in the running.
And there's an all-powerful multinational corporation, Manchurian Global. It has done rather well out of no-bid contracts for the war, has extremely cosy relations with the entrenched conservative administration and might be planning a November surprise of its own to cement access to the Oval Office.
Welcome to director Jonathan Demme's update of the 1962 John Frankenheimer thriller about a brainwashed soldier caught in his mother's plans for the White House.
The original, starring Frank Sinatra, was something of a Cold War polemic, complete with a political assassination at a convention. It was adapted from Richard Condon's 1959 novel, when the only thing more sinister than a Soviet Communist was a Chinese one. It became famous after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, when it was withdrawn because of Sinatra's fear that it might have played a part at Dallas.
However, in this one, the cunning devils doing the brainwashing are not foreign communists from the province of Manchuria, but corporate patriots from the boardroom of a company a lot like Halliburton or Bechtel.
"I think the biggest change we made was that one," Demme says. "The idea of the enemy being from within, rather than some foreign entity we could all unite against, was really the scariest possibility. It you want paranoia, that ratchets up the paranoia factor enormously.
"I also like to think of this as an anti-war movie, so I think it is worth showing the sort of forces ranged against peace - including what they used to call the military-industrial complex."
Demme, who made The Silence of the Lambs, knows a thing or two about creating paranoia. There's an almost constant backdrop of a CNN-style network reporting new instances of global upheaval. Australian audiences, especially those still unnerved about Canberra hinting unilateral intervention on foreign soil, should be chilled by the one about the Indonesian incursion. Demme demurred from discussing the background.
But Demme's film is very different to Michael Moore's great political polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11. And as it turned out, it was also less successful than Moore's film at the box office. One reason might be that, in a political season as starkly polarised as this one, Demme goes to pains to blunt direct comparisons to real-life politics. None of the political characters is given a party label.
It's pretty much an indictment of everyone.
"We didn't particularly want it to be party-partisan," Demme says. "I personally think Fahrenheit 9/11 was terrific, but we weren't making a documentary. I mean, we have dramatic actors of the calibre of Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, so we didn't need to turn them into talking heads.
"We tried very hard not to be a parody. If you think you can identify Meryl's character's party, I could come up with another plot point to prove you wrong."
Streep plays the role of the candidate's mother, a performance that won Angela Lansbury an Oscar nomination. Yet she's a senator this time, not merely a political spouse.
In terms of her power-suit wardrobe and easy-care hairdo, Streep's Senator Eleanor Shaw has a certain resemblance to New York Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton. Shaw is the ultimate schemer and manipulator - and Streep is quite an admirer of the former First Lady - so she plays down how much inspiration she drew from the country's most visible female politician.
"If you look at all those political women in Washington, they all wear the same sort of business suits and they all have the short hair," Streep says.
"I mean, there's as much [Republican Senator] Elizabeth Dole or [Bush advisers] Karen Hughes or Peggy Noonan in there as Hillary.
"Actually, Hillary is pretty conservative, regrettably, on the subject of the Iraq war, but the sort of rhetoric she goes in for is pretty generic. It's a politician strategising."
One of the producers of the remake is Sinatra's daughter, Tina. She says her involvement is not a general indication of approval for the remaking of her father's films, such as Ocean's 11.
"I think there were special reasons to remake this one," she says. "For one thing, the original was in black-and-white and so it just wasn't getting seen any more. My father was very proud of the way we brought the sentiments of Richard Condon's novel to the screen.
"What upset him was the thought that it might have encouraged assassination. We re-released it in 1987 and he was proud that it was being seen without that baggage."