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Brilliant at Breakfast title banner "The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
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"I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum." -- "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (1954-2015), They Live
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jonathan Demme’s ill-timed adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate didn't do too well when it was originally released. Armed with vision, intellect, chutzpah and a well-earned paranoia, Demme created a scary, tough-minded movie that paid respect to the original while having a strong identity of its own. Unfortunately, audiences didn't like the film. The Manchurian Candidate had a soft opening weekend, so-so reviews, and it was ignored until it went away.

It's too bad, because I believe Demme's film was damned good and that it has even more relevance now than it did then.

The Manchurian Candidate is the mean, crazy old grandfather of the Big Secret Conspiracy That Controls Everything genre. Whether it’s films like The Parallax View or episodes of 24, Alias, and The X-Files, you can see the fingerprints of John Frankenheimer’s brilliant movie. But in spite of walking down a very familiar and well-used road, Demme never stumbles into the potholes of being too derivative, too cynical or too dumb. He’s smart enough to keep what works in Frankenheimer’s masterpiece and has the confidence to throw away what doesn’t.

For example, the simplistic psychobabble that mesmerized audiences in 1962 would come across like Brainwashing for Dummies today, so it was junked. Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber are much better actors than Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Harvey were, so there’s a tragic poignancy to their characters that wasn’t there before. Meryl Streep has a cool, elegant malevolence as Mrs. Shaw, a charming psychopath who would lovingly tuck a napkin underneath your chin to catch the blood before neatly cutting your throat. No, Streep won’t scare the bejeezus out of you like Angela Lansbury did, but she’s damned close. (There's a brilliant sequence in the film where Streep's Mrs. Shaw bullies a room full of cynical pols into giving her son the presidential nomination without even breaking a sweat) More importantly, the doomed soldiers in The Manchurian Candidate aren't bloodless figures as flat as an Army recruitment poster. What happens to them is heartbreaking.

And with a new McDonalds opening up in downtown Beijing, the villains obviously aren’t those dirty commie rats from China this time. Instead, the bad guys are a mysterious global organization named the Manchurian Corporation. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously observed (but, as usual, nobody paid any attention to him), “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Jonathan Demme hasn’t “stolen” The Manchurian Candidate from John Frankenheimer. However, this version carries a deeper emotional resonance for me because the characters living in this world feel more real. Hell, the world in this remake feels more real, because as cynical as Frankenheimer's film was, it wasn't cynical enough. Back then, I don't think the original film could have imagined Haliburton, or a treacherous government that ruthlessly exploits its people because it's good business. It's not "Us" vs. "Them" anymore.

It's "Us" vs. "Us".

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