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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Lost classic remembered in rip-roaring way

The Manchurian Candidate

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Imagine if a movie about Arab terrorists flying an airplane into the Pentagon had been on America's movie screens in the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. That's about the closest parallel one can draw to the spectacular accident of history that followed "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962. A creepy political thriller starring Frank Sinatra, "The Manchurian Candidate" imagined a Korean War P.O.W., brainwashed by the North Koreans and back in the United States as a sleeper agent, who when activated, would assassinate the president.

News photo
Denzel Washington in "The Manchurian Candidate"

Life imitated art in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-marine who -- surprise, surprise -- had spent time in the Soviet Union. Rumors of commie mind-control flourished, no doubt helped by the template set by "The Manchurian Candidate." The movie was quickly pulled from further distribution or broadcast, its subject too sensitive for a nation in mourning. (Or so the story goes: Film critic Roger Ebert claims Sinatra pulled it because of a financial dispute with the studio; it's also not hard to imagine some of Frank's pals in the Mob, friends of Jack Ruby perhaps, suggesting that this flick quickly disappear).

There's no way whatsoever for any remake of this movie to achieve even half the impact, and that holds true for director Jonathan Demme's 2004 attempt (titled "Crisis of America" in Japan), which tries to re-imagine the story in today's political climate. Demme, however, does get one thing very right: In the U.S. of today, the biggest threats to democracy are more likely to emerge from within than without.

Demme moves the action from the Korean War of the '50s to the Gulf War of the '90s. We meet Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) addressing an audience of Boy Scouts on his experiences in Kuwait. He talks about how his patrol was ambushed in the dead of night, and how Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Lier Schreiber) saved them all, and earned the Medal of Honor for his courage.

But, on the way out, Marco is cornered by Cpl. Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), another nervous old war buddy from his platoon. He complains to Marco about the strange dreams he's been having, and of Sgt. Shaw's heroism, he can only say, "See, I remember it just like you said it happened . . . and then I don't."

Marco brushes him off, but remains troubled; He's been having strange dreams himself, for which the army has put him on medication, like it's just some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. But what's eerie is that he, Melvin, Shaw and all the other soldiers describe that patrol using the exact same words.

What's even more troubling is that war-hero Shaw, the son of the ambitious and powerful Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), is now positioned as a vice presidential candidate, a heartbeat away from the presidency. Marco starts shadowing Shaw, hoping to get a moment with him in private, but Shaw's Secret Service agents -- including a particularly menacing Gary Busey -- eye Marco suspiciously, and keep him at a distance.

On his own, Marco turns to Richard Delp (Bruno Ganz), an expert in various dark areas of neuroscience. Marco suspects brainwashing and with Delp's help and a liberal dose of electro-shock therapy, he starts to unlock his buried memories of what really happened on that lost patrol . . .

Demme, with screenwriter Daniel Pyne, establishes an insidious, multitentacled conspiracy with its roots not in international communism, but in multinational corporatism. The baddie that emerges here is Manchurian Global, a hydra-headed corporation feeding at the military-industrial trough.

Demme uses the constant background chatter of TV news and political talk shows to establish the context: "The war on terror continues into another year with no end in sight," blares one pundit, while reports show Manchurian Global as over-charging the government for medical supplies in the "Indonesian incursion," and providing a private army of contractors for a conflict in Belarus.

It's on this point that the film teeters and nearly falls, however. The idea that multinational corporations would have to employ brainwashing, memory implants and assassination to achieve their goals is clearly ludicrous given current Washington politics, where corporations like Haliburton have managed to control the White House through nothing more nefarious than the generous lining of pockets. And brainwashing? Don't get me started.

But it's highly unlikely we need memory implants when 75 percent of Americans have open access to a free media and yet still believe the cleverly insinuated lie that Iraq had a role in the 9/11 attacks. A truly radical film would have had the Manchurian Global candidate revealed to be a brainwashed corporate puppet . . . and then have him win the election anyway, because he supports prayer in schools.

But "The Manchurian Candidate" does work as a tense, taut thriller. And Demme succeeds in often intersecting with reality in some intriguing ways. Shaw's campaign on his war record, which is open to question, eerily recalls the controversy surrounding John Kerry in 2004.

What the film can't achieve, though, is shock. In 1963, Americans were loathe to believe that their democracy could be subverted by dark, conspiratorial forces. In 2004, one of the biggest films was a documentary trying to prove that same point, and a good deal of the country had little problem buying it. Indeed, if you believe Michael Moore's thesis of "The Arabian Candidate," it's far more frightening than anything you'll find in Demme's film.

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