A remake of the 1962 Frank Sinatra/ Laurence Harvey classic thriller, Jonathan Demme’s version may substitute The Gulf War for The Korean War and the contentious villainy of a foreign power for the relative safety of pointing the finger at the more anodyne target of a mysterious multinational corporation (after all, in 2017 who would believe the idea of a Russian plot to subvert the will of the American people and install a puppet president?) but the central concept behind “The Manchurian Candidate” remains as potently chilling as ever.
When Major Bennett Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a respected Gulf War veteran, begins to suspect his post-traumatic stress disorder is, in fact, a sign that his memories have been interfered with, it puts him on a collision course with the ambitions of his fellow veteran, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) who supposedly rescued all but two members in his unit and was awarded the Medal of Honour, launching his political career.
There’s a disquieting ease and credibility to the ease with which a malignant organisation manages to place its cuckoo in the democratic nest and while some of the brainwashing and technobabble unapologetically crosses over into science fiction, you replace science and serums with money and leverage and the whole thing becomes frighteningly possible, a caustic indictment of just how easily manipulated and compromised a party desperate for power can be.
The film treads a fine line and, in addition to avoiding offending a foreign power (and therefore presumably alienating that nation’s audience) it also carefully avoids committing itself to which party is being infiltrated and controlled. In fact, depending on which lines you connect with which bit of string on your conspiracy mood board of photos maps and news cuttings, you could easily transpose the characters to either the Republicans or the Democrats.
The (not at all overrated) Meryl Streep is fiendishly fantastic as the ruthlessly ambitious Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, mother of war hero Raymond and the way she expertly manipulates and schools the posturing backroom deal making of her party feels achingly topical as she bends them to her will with spin, polls, focus groups and ultimata.
Schreiber gives an excellent performance as the man, unknowingly compromised but beginning to suspect that all is not well while Denzel does Denzel. There’s nothing remarkable or outstanding about Washington here but he’s a solid and dependable lead in a story where the audience need someone they can believe in as the conspiracy unravels around the characters.
A conspiracy theory thriller which feels less theoretical with every passing day, I suppose the ultimate achievement of “The Manchurian Candidate” is to pose the question: is it still paranoia if it’s actually, really happening?
Goodnight, and good luck America.