More than once in Jonathan Demme’s reimagining of The Manchurian Candidate, a distraught Denzel Washington jabs at his skull and rasps, “They got in here.” He means it literally. Gone are the Communist brainwashers of the 1962 film, who controlled captured GIs by means of superpowerful Asiatic hypnosis. The global capitalists of Demme’s version implant orders by the more up-to-date method of drilling into the brain.
Jitters have replaced goose bumps as the key audience reaction, now that the process of mind control entails sound effects reminiscent of a dentist’s office and the sight of skull powder dusting the air; and given Demme’s purpose, the change is appropriate. He’s using the slightly sci-fi element of his plot as a cautionary exaggeration, to sensitize you to an actually existing form of brain invasion. For the most humane reasons, he wants this movie to get into your head.
Of course, the plot has already been embedded. Most moviegoers have at least heard about the original Manchurian Candidate (directed by John Frankenheimer from a screenplay by George Axelrod, based on Richard Condon’s novel), and many of them know how that film managed to have its Red Menace and laugh at it, too, since the story’s Chinese Communists turned out to be working in America through a clique of McCarthyite politicians.
Demme dispenses with this through-the-looking-glass effect. In his version–I call it Demme’s because the screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, have not risen to this level before–an overseas conflict again provides the occasion for the initial abduction and brainwashing; but the foreign enemies have disappeared. No Kuwaitis, Iraqis or even Iranians bored into the minds of our boys during the 1991 Gulf War. Instead, the villains worked for a privately held investment firm and military contractor, Manchurian Global, whose US agents have no need to conceal themselves but work openly on the floor of Congress. Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) is the company’s close personal friend. Her son Raymond (Liev Schreiber), an official hero of the Gulf War, is a strangely awkward and detached fellow who is now running for Vice President because his mother tells him to, and who responds with similar obedience to whatever instructions Manchurian Global beams into his head.
When stated this baldly, the premise sounds as if Michael Moore himself would send it back to the shop for nuance. So let me begin again, properly this time, and sketch out not the conspiracy but the story, as Demme tells it:
Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is giving a talk to a small troop of Boy Scouts–an odd assignment, you think, for so impressive-looking an officer–when he is accosted by a ghost. In revenge dramas, the dead often come back to urge on a troubled hero; and so, even though the figure who pops up before Marco is nominally alive, you can readily see the rags around him as grave clothes, or imagine the smell of damp earth in his clotted hair. This man, who had served under Marco in the Gulf War and now wants to ask him about his dreams, is played with a Lazarus-like stare by the brilliant Jeffrey Wright. So rich in talent is The Manchurian Candidate that it can expend such an actor in a role that effectively ends after one scene, but is powerful enough to propel Marco through the rest of the movie. In a memorably uncomfortable exchange, made all the more painful for taking place in the narrow vestibule of a school as children play outside, Marco clumsily tries to pay this Corporal Al Melvin to go away, then counsels the exasperated ghost to “get help.” The appropriateness of this advice becomes evident as soon as we see Marco return to his apartment. Odd, you think, that such an impressive-looking officer should live in a storage closet for old newspapers.