More than once in Jonathan Demme's re-imagining 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.
As drama rather than politics, The Manchurian Candidate is the story of how Marco almost decomposes like Corporal Al Melvin (whose own apartment has turned into an outsider art installation). Instead, through defiance, he holds together, like other avengers before him. In Demme's hands, The Manchurian Candidate also becomes a drama about friendship. As part of Marco's heroic struggle for sanity, he seeks out another of his former soldiers, Raymond Shaw, and after a bad start the two manage to overcome their soul-killing isolation. They discover the sad but substantial bond of being damaged men.
Audiences who have followed Denzel Washington's movie adventures will find that his realization of Major Marco rings profoundly true. We have often seen Washington wear a uniform, and he frequently plays an unraveling man of action, whose strength must be turned inward to control himself. (Only a few months ago, Tony Scott's unforgivable Man on Fire wasted him in such a role.) The Manchurian Candidate draws on, and deepens, this well-established image, and not just by mixing in some politics. To the restrained, well-centered bearing and unpredictable surges of power, Washington now adds a keyed-up thoughtfulness, which you sense at work behind even his most lurid acts. His achievement in The Manchurian Candidate is to do the most mad things, under the most extreme pressure, and make them seem coolly experimental.
Washington in this movie always seems to be holding back tears, for fear they'll impede his thinking. Schreiber, on the other hand, gives the impression of fighting against chronic vertigo. His Raymond Shaw walks stiffly, with his hands dangling in front of him. When he speaks, a deep, smooth voice rolls out from no identifiable source in his body. He's the very picture of what it means to forget oneself – until, unexpectedly, an internal gear catches, and he begins to talk to rather than at the person before him. What he says would embarrass a normal 34-year-old, but it almost doesn't matter, since something human has been switched on. Schreiber's achievement in The Manchurian Candidate – a feat that is perhaps even more remarkable than Washington's – is to do all this almost simultaneously. His Shaw is made up of multiple, translucent layers of creepiness and vulnerability.
This is the human core of The Manchurian Candidate, to which Meryl Streep contributes nothing. She doesn't need to. Her assignment, which she carries off with breathtaking brio, is to provide explicit political content and laughter. When she's absent, the grotesque humor that was so much a part of the original Manchurian Candidate is nowhere to be found. Demme allows you that pleasure only when Streep is on screen, tossing off idiosyncratic choices so quickly, and so precisely on the mark, that she might be Vladimir Horowitz playing a scherzo. Here's a sudden pianissimo, dropped into a sentence just for fun; here's a rude marcato, executed by crunching an ice cube with the teeth.
And here, at the beginning of the film, is a tirade delivered to the leaders of her political party, to tell them why today, in a time of international terror, her son Raymond must be made the vice-presidential candidate, or there will be hell to pay. After Streep's Senator Shaw concludes her well-calculated rampage, the party elders meekly give in – which makes you wonder why Manchurian Global would need brainwashing technology.
The fact is, the company doesn't need it – and that's not a weakness of the plot but the point of the movie. Demme has filled The Manchurian Candidate, supersaturated it, with examples of the actual mind-control technology that drills into our heads today: the twenty-four-hour, 360-degree yammer of cable news shows and talk-radio programs. He's made the ambient soundtrack thick with these electronic voices, often piled one on top of the other. Their reports (always false) envelop his characters wherever they go. Their generalized warnings and moralized reassurances get in here, and nobody (except a presumed madman like Marco) wants to dig them out. The masters of the airwaves give us something we enjoy to the point of physical addiction, as Demme subtly reminds us in perhaps the scariest effect in the movie: the smile of pleasure that opens on Raymond Shaw's face when his controllers plug into his brain.
I walked out of The Manchurian Candidate thinking of how Demme, with his devotion to classical storytelling, prefers not to draw attention to his technique. Two hours later, as the movie throbbed obsessively in my skull, I began to wonder how much more overpowering anyone's technique could be. The dense textures and hypnotic imagery of his Manchurian Candidate don't distract from the onward rush of events while you're watching the picture, which runs for more than two hours and yet seems to speed by. But later, when the full effect hits, you realize that the electronic sounds around you can no longer be ignored. Later, you begin to grieve for Major Bennett Marco, who found that revenge can't wash away the past.