Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Objectively, remaking The Manchurian Candidate seems a wild proposition. The 1962 version was met with strong critical praise and audience support upon its release. Furthermore, Angela Lansbury’s depiction of Eleanor Iselin has only grown to near-mythic standards of appreciation since. On top of it all, the movie was also a deeply faithful adaptation of the novel. How and why does someone re-adapt/remake something that was both universally praised and hewed so close to the source material as to make being less faithful the only option?
The most compelling answer lies in Jonathan Demme’s particular fixation on humanism. As has been well-established, the director has long been considered one of the most humane directors of the late 20th and early 21st Century. Through films like Something Wild, Rachel Getting Married, Beloved, and even Ricki and the Flash, the director has time and time again created empathetic portraits of people struggling through life.
What gets less attention but is no less true is how effective Demme can be when focusing on people stripped of their humanity, either by choice or force. The human monsters of The Silence of the Lambs are the most obvious and well-known example of this. However, it is present from the start in his early Corman produced efforts like Caged Heat. You even find evidence of it in his otherwise rightfully trumpeted humanistic successes, like Andrew Beckett’s (Tom Hanks) treatment at the hands of his former work colleagues in Philadelphia.
What gets less attention but is no less true is how effective Demme can be when focusing on people stripped of their humanity, either by choice or force.
While The Manchurian Candidate definitely shows the hallmarks of the director’s concern with the humane, it seems far more interested in the dark flip side. Yes, it is obviously concerned with plenty of modern worries— the rise of corporate influence in politics, the War on Terror as an eternal conflict, the failure to care for returning veterans—but is Demme first and foremost is occupied with his characters. Specifically, he cannot help but focus on the conversion of humanity to commodity; the stripping of a person’s “soul” to reduce them, symbolically and literally, to objects for corporations to utilize as they see fit.
In the ‘60s, the boogeymen of politics were the two sides of the Red Scare. The lingering McCarthyites were still obsessed with labeling anyone who had different views or made them nervous as pinko degenerates sat on one side. On the other, the terror of those foreign Communist forces infiltrated and twisted American culture. The novel and original adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate lived in this dichotomy, creating an alliance between the McCarthy disciples—Lansbury’s Eleanor and her husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory)—and those foreign interlopers. It turns out, the Candidate posits, that an easily activated sleeper assassin in the highest ranks of the government serves both the professional anti-Communist and foreign pro-Communist interests equally well.
By 2004, however, the fear of an America manipulated by Reds from within had largely faded. Yes, the fear of Russia and Socialism has come back in full force in the years since, but for a brief shining moment it truly seemed like the old conflicts of the Cold War had faded. In its place had risen the War on Terror and its signature bad guy, the Muslim extremist. Demme, working with screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, smartly digs deeper than this, though.
While using the War on Terror as a fertile backdrop to this updated Candidate, the script pushes past that simple “us versus them” conflict. Instead of an enemy from within and one from beyond our borders, it highlights one that is both at once. In the 21st Century, the biggest threat to our way of life signs our paychecks and sells us our appliances. Multinational corporations, fully happy to wrap themselves in a veneer of patriotism but truly devoid of any actual political ideology, are our modern monsters. Worse yet, they’re possibly our modern masters.
It makes sense for our time. Hell, 16 years later and post-Citizens United, it makes even more sense. It also makes perfect sense for a Demme film. It allows him to cast the biggest threat to America as a “machine” that exists to make humans into consumers, to cast out humanity for the almighty dollar.
Demme’s vision is well aided by Liev Schreiber’s turn as the broken and doomed Raymond Shaw. Able to conjure both Shaw’s agreeable mild liberalism and his increasingly yawning chasm of emptiness, Schreiber makes him a deeply unnerving central figure. He carries forward his character’s social awkwardness and lets it inform the choices he makes along the way. Shaw could easily be a pathetic, pitiable figure (or a monstrous one), but Schreiber keeps the character dancing on a pinhead. The choice gives an ambiguity to a film that sometimes feels intensely unsubtle.
Able to conjure both Shaw’s agreeable mild liberalism and his increasingly yawning chasm of emptiness, Schreiber makes him a deeply unnerving central figure.
On the less subtle side of things exist Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). A great reminder of how well Washington could do jittery, Marco’s journey towards the truth and unraveling is the kind of big Demme does wonders with on-screen. Streep’s, however, is both more controlled and bigger than Washington’s. As you watch her, you realize that Eleanor herself is always performing. With the exception of a scene that raises the specter that her interest in Raymond might be purely motherly, she is always acting.
She performs for her fellow party hacks to get her son on the ballot, for her big donors to convince them how in control she is, and for her own son to get him to ignore the mounting evidence that something is very off. Watching Streep act like she’s acting is a fun trip. She can’t match the disorientation of Angela Lansbury’s interpretation of the character, but it’s a great bit of scene-chewing and -stealing—the kind that Streep rarely gets to do.
Still, it’s Demme’s camera that pulls it all together. Or, in this case, pushes everyone further apart. Aided by longtime collaborator, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Demme corrupts his most recognizable stylistic flair, the closeup that leaves characters barreling down the lens at the audience. Typically, this technique creates an intimacy and promotes connection with the character. Here, though, Demme utilizes it to separate his characters.
In what turns out to be the “climactic” conversation between Shaw and Marco, the camera alternates between closeups of each. While it gives them a chance to speak directly to the audience, it also comes between them. We realize earlier than Marco does how fruitless his intervention will be because the camera shows us their disconnect. Their words are literally not reaching one another, tumbling instead down the black hole of the camera lens. It makes literal how far Shaw already has been removed from his own humanity, and there is a symbolic and physically uncrossable space between them.
Choices like the corruption of his closeup make about 90 percent of The Manchurian Candidate one of Demme’s most disconcerting films. The pervasive paranoia proved right and the inability to redirect the machinations of a powerful corporation creates a deep sense of dread for most of its running time. However, everything after the election night celebration feels too tidy, too easy. While the hint of a government conspiracy to erase the corporate conspiracy has a little bite, it is very little.
Rather than feel like a triumph of Demme’s humanism, it reads like blink, a last-second weakening of the film’s convictions. This is not a blanket rejection of endings with some sense of the upbeat, only that this one feels too quickly rushed towards to be earned. It breaks the spell the film had been effectively building, the sense of there being no true escape from the system. It is, one could argue, the reason that 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate is largely considered a very good thriller but little else while the ’62 remains regarded as a classic. If it could have found the strength to maintain its dark themes, perhaps it would have lingered far more in collective pop culture consciousness.