Director Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate lost at the box office this weekend. It was easily outstripped by M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural phychodrama The Village and ended up in a dogfight for second place with another programmed assassin in The Bourne Supremacy, which it lost. Since Supremacy had opened the previous week, this was a devastating debut.
The original flick was about a soldier who was captured during the Korean War and brainwashed by Communists to assassinate the presidential nominee. When a Communist-sympathizer shot President Kennedy in November of 1963, Frank Sinatra, the film’s star, who owned the rights and who the FBI suspected of having flirted with radical left-wing politics when he was younger, had it removed from all remaining theaters. It was rarely shown on television and wasn’t widely available until it was re-released theatrically in 1987.
But where the original Candidate proved too on target with its over-the-top-ness, the new one is suffering from the opposite problem. As I filed out with other moviegoers on opening night, the most common complaint I overheard was that this movie wasn’t frightening enough.
I take their point. Both movies are deeply paranoid projects, but they’re paranoid about different things, and not all paranoias are created equal. For the first film, remember, the country had a lot of things dangling over its head: Communist advances in Asia and Europe, trials and hearings about Communist infiltration of government agencies, the Cuban Missile Crisis. In short, the Cold War loomed large. There was a very real sense that the U.S. could lose it all to the Soviet Union and Red China.
Along came a movie that said, “Buddy, you don’t know the half of it.” The would-be assassin is a decorated war hero, programmed to kill on command without remorse. And in case anybody missed the point about how we can no longer trust authority figures, he wears a priest outfit to do the hit. The assassin’s mother is a Soviet agent. His stepfather, a Sen. Joe McCarthy knockoff and vice-presidential nominee, is her marionette. And this happy family is but one bullet away from the nomination and the presidency.
This year’s Candidate is worried about other things. Set at some point not too far in the future (say 2008), the U.S. is still engaged in a slippery war on terror, but the terrorists aren’t the bad guys. The Manchurian in the title stands for Manchurian Global, a defense contractor that sounds suspiciously like Halliburton, the company that Vice President Cheney used to run. The current administration is balking at some of the contractor’s fees, so Manchurian decides to change administrations.
Enter Sen. Raymond Shaw (played by Liev Schreiber), a decorated war hero from the first Gulf War, son of the tough-as-nails Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) — Hillary Clinton, Lady Macbeth, and Ann Coulter rolled into one. Eleanor manages to bluster her son onto the ticket and it’s up to Major Ben Marco (Denzell Washington in the role played by Sinatra in the earlier go-round) to save the day.
The commercial problem for the new Candidate is that, try as he might, director Demme can’t make Americans fear corporations in the same way that they once did the Communists. The USSR invaded countries and fed people to the Gulags. Halliburton may occasionally overcharge for gasoline. See the difference?
There are two more things that this Candidate is paranoid about in a way that the first wasn’t: technology and women. In the first flick, when Marco finally got Shaw to talk about his past, he made Shaw gloss over the technical details of how they programmed him, and the thing that triggered Shaw — a Red Queen — could be found in an ordinary deck of playing cards. This time, chips are implanted in heads, microchips are bitten out of people’s backs, surveillance cameras loom large, and assassination orders are delivered by cellphone.
And last time the fair sex got a fairer shake. As Raymond Shaw’s mother, Angela Lansbury may have been a cunning, diabolical operator, but the other women in the film made the audience understand that she was the exception. Then: When Raymond was made to kill his new wife, it was a truly disturbing scene. Now: When he drowns his childhood sweetheart, it barely registers. Women are simply not a force for good, and Meryl Streep’s turn as the modern assertive female politician is truly something to behold. To cast it in familiar terms, if she were Eve shopping an apple around, I know very few men who would have the fortitude to refuse to bite down.
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