Based on the Richard Condon novel and scripted by George Axelrod, the original was set during and after the Korean War. The enemy was international communism. The Chinese did the brainwashing; the Russians planned to control the U.S. president. Lawrence Harvey played war hero Sgt. Raymond Shaw. Frank Sinatra was squad commander Capt. Bennet Marco. Janet Leigh was his quirky love interest, Eugenie Rose Chaney. Shaw's conniving (and incestuous) mother (Angela Lansbury) was a sleeper-cell communist married to a weak-willed, stupid, alcoholic U.S. Senator (James Gregory) who she wanted to see become president.
Reimagined and updated by writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, Demme's version is set during and after Gulf War I. Liev Schreiber is the false hero Shaw. Denzel Washington is Marco. And Meryl Streep is Shaw's widowed mother Eleanor, now a U.S. Senator in her own right. This time Mom wants to capture the presidency for her son, not her husband. Kimberly Elise plays Eugenie Rose, a character developed here with greater clarity than in the original.
The title refers now not to communist Chinese but to Manchurian Global (read Enron/Halliburton), an international conglomerate into oil, medical technology, surveillance and military mercenaries. Manchurian actually wants to rule the world; it's just starting with the United States. Frankenheimer's film attacked McCarthyism as well as communism. Demme's slams ruthless international corporate corruption and American politicians who serve as its facilitators.
Some Republicans have declared this film more partisan than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. And I certainly take note that Eleanor speaks of herself as being a "red," as in a senator from a red or Republican state (nice irony since the original Eleanor was a "red" as in a communist) and that Raymond campaigns on the slogan "Compassionate Vigilance," which inarguably sounds like George W. Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism" motto. But the film never once employs party names and, if anything, while Raymond advances toward a vice-presidential nomination, he sounds more like a Democrat than a Republican. Moreover, Democrats won't like how much Eleanor's look and mannerisms will remind them of Hillary Clinton. In short, if Republicans feel specifically attacked by this film, they need look no further than that telling passage in Fahrenheit 9/11 where George W. Bush addresses an audience he terms "the haves and the have mores" and tells them, "Some people call you the elite, but I call you my base."
The current Manchurian Candidate has its flaws. Perhaps responding to criticism of the original that human beings can't be hypnotized into doing the things Raymond and Marco do, Demme and his team seem to suggest that Marco's squad members are controlled by electronic brain implants. But that doesn't account for the nightmares of truth all the men suffer. And no explanation is ever provided for the tattooed face of the spectral Muslim woman that appears in all their sweaty visions. Nor does the film explain the function of implants apparently buried under the skin on the back of the men's shoulders or why after some years, Marco's implant suddenly swells up. The scene in which Marco attacks Raymond and bites the implant out of Raymond's shoulder is matched in its wild improbability only by Raymond's reaction.
Nonetheless, this picture delivers a sly parody of our political habits and obsessions and genuine chills about the dangers that face us. When the founders of our republic came to draft the Constitution, whose brilliant flexibility has allowed us to enjoy two and more centuries of freedoms unparalleled in human history, they created a system of checks and balances by dividing power among an executive, a legislative and a judicial branch of government. In the first amendment to that Constitution, they in effect provided a fourth guarantor for our collective rights when they protected the freedom of the press.
But what the framers of the Constitution could not have foreseen was the rise of global conglomerates whose corporate interests and power transcend the boundaries of any one nation. Such companies possess fundamentally unlimited wealth. Their money permeates our political campaigns. They own our media. Are we still free? For how long?