Tuesday, December 30, 2014


I recently watched Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I've seen the original 1962 version several times and it's a film I hold in high regard. The remake updates the basic plot with a few new wrinkles for the 21st century and is, generally speaking, a slick, well-made political thriller.

But I have a major problem with the key plot device of the narrative and I'm going to have to discuss in detail the end of the film here in order to make my point.

In the film, Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), a veteran of the Gulf War, has been brainwashed to act as a political assassin. In the original film, Frank Sinatra played the part of Marco but he did not act as an assassin. That duty fell to Sgt, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Here, Shaw, as played by Live Schreiber, is another war hero who is positioned to be the vice-presidential nominee on an unnamed political party's ticket. Meryl Streep plays Shaw mother's (Angela Lansbury played the part in the original), a U.S. Senator, who will stop at nothing to see her son propelled into a strategically vital political position.

Shaw receives the nomination as vice president for his party at the convention and he's joined on stage by his mother. They stand alongside the presidential candidate whom Marco has been brainwashed into shooting. Instead, Marco overcomes his programming and shoots both Shaw and his mother with one bullet, effectively eliminating the real threat to the country.

It's a neat twist ending but I'm left wondering, what was the point of Marco shooting the presidential candidate in the first place? We're only at a political convention. The men have just been nominated. The ticket hasn't won a general election and neither man has taken an oath of office and been sworn into their respective duties. So why shoot a presidential candidate at this stage of the campaign?

Would Shaw automatically become the presidential candidate by default? Or would the delegates at the convention have to place into nomination another candidate for the position? Even if Shaw was somehow placed at the head of his party's ticket, it doesn't guarantee that he'll be elected in November. Wouldn't it make far more sense to wait until Shaw and the presidential candidate are elected and sworn in, before killing the new president? That's the only way I know of to put Shaw into office through a legal, constitutionally mandated succession of power.

If anyone has any insight into this question, I'd like to hear from them. Sure it makes for great political theater and high drama to stage an assassination at a major convention but from a logistical point of view, if making sure that the brainwashed Raymond Shaw ends up in the highest office of the land, it just wouldn't accomplish that goal.

Still, Demme delivers a well-crafted and very well acted film. Denzel Washington is superb as a broken man slowly uncovering the truth about his past, Schreiber is a stolid war hero, a blank slate upon which the evil schemes of others have been imprinted and Meryl Streep is almost-but-not-quite over-the-top as the power hungry mother who dominates her son in every way.  

As a rule, I don't think remakes are necessary. Certainly not in the case of this material. The original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was an excellent film, superbly directed by John Frankenheimer. It's very much a product of the Cold War era in which it was made. Demme's film doesn't make any noticeable improvements on the material, merely some cosmetic changes. The plot is still essentially the same.

So, why spend all of that time, talent and money to redo something that was damn near perfect the first time? Couldn't all of that effort been put to good use on something new, fresh and original? The argument in favor of remakes like this used to be that the majority of today's moviegoers aren't familiar with the original, that it's an old movie in black and white with actors and actresses who are all dead and the material needs to be freshened up for a new generation.

That may have been true at one point but it's not true any longer. Anyone of any age who has any interest has access to the original version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. They don't have to wait to catch it on television or to see it at a revival house. In 2014, the 1962 MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a click away, ready to be downloaded or streamed wherever and whenever anyone wants it.

So, the film is more accessible today than it has ever been. That eliminates the argument that today's audiences don't have access to the original film. The question (and problem) becomes, do they want to become familiar with it or will they prefer this new iteration which itself will probably be redone yet again in another twenty-odd years.

All I know is that while Demme's film is well made and entertaining, I still prefer the original version.

1 comment:

  1. I ask myself these same questions about remakes all the time. What I wish Hollywood would do is make remakes that use the same shooting script as the original much like a Shakespeare play. In other words, I wish remakes would become repertoire. When Shakespeare plays are performed, they don't come up with a new script for the basic plot even when they update the play to a contemporary setting (which can be jarring and not very successful). So, we get to see Olivier's Hamlet and Jacobi's Hamlet and Branaugh's Hamlet and Keanu Reeves Hamlet etc. Just think if that were true of movie parts such as Rhet Butler (GWTW), Charlie Olenutt (African Queen), or even Hannibal Lecter and that's just male roles. We could also evaluate if actors really have the stuff or if they are just pretenders getting by on their looks because if you can't handle the great roles, should you be an actor in the first place. Its kind of like being a professional singer and you can't sing any of the classical repertoire (which unfortunately is the norm instead of the exception these days) so we get all these singers of questionable and subpar ability and our culture suffers as a result as we dumb down our expectations.