Judging from audience response, the tale told in The Manchurian Candidate still packs a wallop. Twists in the plot were met by gasps, and an on-screen retaliatory punch met with applause. It seems to have everything a summer thriller needs.
I have to say “seems to have,” because I’m a fan of the original version, released in 1962. Instead of being surprised by turns in the story, I kept anticipating them, which kind of takes the sock out of suspense. And without suspense, this version doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a spectacle of noise and blood, without the psychological subtext that made the first film far more disturbing.
That may sound like cinema-snob whining, but a quick trip through the original version discloses far too many superior points. Both versions were based on a Cold War-era novel by Richard Condon, and the 1962 film, unsurprisingly, stuck to a Cold War time frame, while the new one is set in the present day. It imagined that an Army unit (then, in Korea; now, in the Gulf) was kidnapped and brainwashed, and returned to the U.S. repeating the story that Sgt. Raymond Shaw (then, Laurence Harvey; now, Leiv Schreiber) had heroically saved them. But some of the men have nightmares in which they recall a very different series of events.
The unit’s commander, Maj. Bennett Marco (then, Frank Sinatra; now, Denzel Washington), becomes convinced that his memories of Shaw’s valor are false, and the nightmares are trying to tell him something true–something that becomes increasingly urgent. Shaw’s scheming mother (then, Angela Lansbury; now, Meryl Streep) has political ambitions, and it begins to appear that the wartime brain-altering has dark connections to the upcoming presidential election.
The new film sticks to that outline, but boy has it been updated, and it renders a PC flourish wherever possible. Where Angela Lansbury was the wife of a doltish senator whom she played like a puppet, Streep is a senator herself. (Streep wisely chose to not view the original before making the film, to avoid being influenced by Lansbury’s extraordinary performance, which won her an Oscar nod. The character herself, however, demands to be played in certain ways, and Streep’s version is inevitably similar. It’s well done, but Lansbury’s was better thanks to her baby-faced softness, which made the evil more chilling.) Another female character has been turned from a romantic interest into a special agent, charging up the stairs with a gun. But the biggest modification is to the villain.
The original offered a truly surprising twist: It turned out that conservatives were right after all. Communists really were infiltrating the country and plotting to take over the government; that’s what the title means. The ingenious smoke screen is that Lansbury’s husband, Sen. Johnny Iselin (James Gregory; this character was eliminated from the new movie), is a drunken buffoon who keeps alleging that there are exactly 104 Communists operating in the government, or maybe 254, or maybe 57 (after he looks at a bottle of Heinz ketchup). Iselin is so laughable that he makes wariness of Communism look stupid by association. Meanwhile, Mrs. Iselin is pulling exactly the strings she wants.
Transferred faithfully to the present day, the story should have run: The men are kidnapped and brainwashed by Muslim terrorists; Shaw’s mother is associated with hawks so extreme they make preparation for defense look absurd; in the end we learn that our clever enemies have arranged to have their own candidate elected as our president.
But that pleasing symmetry is lost in this new version, in which the enemy is not people who are actually shooting at us, but instead a big, bad corporation. “Manchurian Global” does all kinds of nasty things, though not in pursuit of any particular political aim (“It’s been a geopolitical extension of policy for every president since Nixon,” which sounds mighty bipartisan of them). They are motivated purely by greed.
It’s perplexing why an audience would believe that our greatest danger is from a corporation, when Americans are dying at the hands of terrorists on the other side of the world (and here). This is especially true considering that the film itself is the product of a great many corporations, who spent lots of money to make it, and hope to make more money from it in return. If we should hate and fear corporations, why should we even watch the movie? It’s the “Look over there!” strategy employed so elegantly by Mrs. Iselin in the first film, and it seems it still works just fine.
Every alteration in the new version is a change for the worse. The brainwashing scenes in the original were profoundly creepy (you’ll never look at a women’s garden club the same way again), and in the new they are just bloody. The idea of brainwashing–of coaxing, confusing, and subtly altering a person’s mind–is pretty creepy; now the men are controlled by tiny metal implants. The first movie was a psychological thriller, and this one is a robotics exposition.
These implants figure in several far-fetched scenarios. Marco discovers a lump in his shoulder while showering and cuts out the metal capsule with a knife. Later, he rips off Shaw’s shirt and bites the implant out of his back–yes, really. Although this implant makes use of technological advances thought to be impossible, no one finds it of any interest (one investigator refers dismissively to “evidence you chewed out of a man’s back,” as if that’s the most boring kind). And, finally, removing the implants makes no difference in the behavior of either Shaw or Marco. So what were they there for? And wouldn’t the bad guys at Manchurian Global be tracking these implants, and notice when they went missing? And wouldn’t the implants have shown up any time the guys went through a metal detector? And how could you miss noticing a lump in your shoulder for a dozen years? There are points at which this plot is just weak, and then there are points where it crosses over to just dumb.
It’s tempting for me to go on comparing the two films, but it’s much better for you to do it yourself. If you have never seen the original Manchurian Candidate, you are in for a scary treat. It’s not a summer action movie; it’s a smaller, more thoughtful, more provocative film, and one that will haunt you for a long time. Rent it before you go to your local giant corporate theater chain to watch the new corporately financed version–unless, of course, you agree with this movie’s message, and think corporations are the greatest evil we face.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.