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Desperately struggling to hold onto his sanity, Denzel Washington’s character in The Manchurian Candidate slowly begins to realise that reality is worse than anything in his recurring nightmares. Eleanor Singer looks at an up-date of the classic 1962 thriller.

In 1991, Tina Sinatra, the late crooner’s youngest daughter, asked her father whether he thought that The Manchurian Candidate would work for a modern audience. The film, first released in 1962, contained one of her father’s most memorable (and distinctly non-singing) screen roles. The plot revolved around brainwashing (had the Chinese planted a hidden command in the head of a former platoon sergeant?) but it doubled as a political satire, coming just as the Eisenhower era began to evolve into the sixties.

Tina’s question was both personal and a matter of business. Sinatra Sr owned the rights to the film, so his opinion on the viability of a possible remake would not only be useful: it was essential. “He said he thought it was smart and would have greater appeal today,” recalls Tina. But it took another 13 years - and five years after Frank’s death - before production started on the film. By then, the war in Iraq was echoing the Gulf War, giving further resonance - and an added sense of threat - to the story.

“What’s most important to me,” insists Tina, “is retaining the human stories that are so crucial to a film like this. The humanity of it is timeless; but updating the film’s battle to the Gulf War makes a lot of sense as well, especially considering how politically pertinent that part of the world is today.”

The original movie, based on a cold war novel by Richard Condon and a classic screenplay by George Axelrod, was directed by John Frankenheimer and dealt with the aftermath of the Korean war, telling the story of two GIs - Sinatra and Laurence Harvey - who have been brainwashed and sent back with a lethal order buried deep in their brain cells, waiting for the right trigger to activate it and thus change the course of American history. This becomes especially dangerous once Harvey’s character, manipulated by his ambitious mother (a powerhouse performance by Angela Lansbury), moves to the heart of the political establishment.

The original movie was several years ahead of its time and almost a decade before the heyday of ‘political paranoia’ movies like The Parallax View. “It is,” remarked Axelrod acidly at the time, “a film which went from failure to classic without ever passing through success.”

"darker themes about the political process"

Now, however, with the idea of a hidden enemy firmly back on the American social and political agenda and a presidential campaign in progress (October 2004), the new Manchurian Candidate - which climaxes at an election rally - could hardly be more pertinent. “With the nation’s eye focused on a presidential election this year,” says director Jonathan Demme, “I couldn’t think of a better time to address darker themes about the political process and the forces that try to undermine it.”

The shifting realities and plot twists of the story - the new script is by Daniel Pyne, who wrote The Sum of All Fears, and Dean Georgaris, who penned the similarly themed Paycheck - are complex. Suffice it to say they make the ins and outs of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest seem straightforward by comparison.

And yet the theme is both simple and effective. The central character, Major Bennett Marco, played by Denzel Washington, is struggling to come to terms with memories and nightmares about a Gulf War incident that made a war hero out of fellow soldier Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Shaw won a Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery during the incident, but Marco’s memories suggest that the reality may have been very different from the official version. Gradually, meanwhile, both Marco and the audience come to realise that he, too, may have had his brain in some way tampered with during those missing hours on a desert road north of Kuwait in the spring of 1991.

“It’s about a group of individuals who are in serious jeopardy because of a similar experience they cannot explain,” says Sinatra. “And Marco in particular is going to figure it out… or die trying.” 

“I think people will walk away from this film having lost themselves in Marco’s emotional experience,” adds Pyne. “At the same time, because of the actors’ performances, I think they’re going to come out of theatres with all sorts of ideas spinning around in their heads.”

Marco has been all but retired following the incident, and now spends his time doing PR for the army - an ironic career, since we first see him telling a group of wide-eyed schoolkids about the incident which made Shaw a national hero. Shaw, meanwhile, further manipulated by his mother, the iron-willed Senator Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep, taking up the Angela Lansbury mantle with evident relish), is carving out a powerful niche for himself, which will soon result in his getting on the ticket as a vice-presidential candidate.

"an impressive cast"

As he follows Shaw around, Marco himself becomes a target for the military establishment, which believes (not, it has to be said, without some justification) that he is becoming unhinged. Marco also becomes aware of the involvement of a sinister corporation called Manchurian Global, which appears to be pulling most of the strings. The multinational also seem to have direct links to the sinister Dr Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney), who appears in Marco’s dreams and soon shows up again in real life. Just like the first film, The Manchurian Candidate climaxes with a presidential rally, a gunman with a high-powered rifle, and long-buried commands being triggered by sinister powers…

Demme’s Manchurian Candidate boasts an impressive cast, including - in addition to those already mentioned - Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Bruno Ganz, singer Robyn Hitchcock and veteran actor Dean Stockwell. Shooting took place in and around Washington and New York, with a huge desert set built in a sand quarry to represent Kuwait. Denzel Washington, like everyone else, was aware of the original film, but chose not to look at it while preparing for his role. “When playing a part that has already been created by another actor, the decision always arises as to whether or not seeing that interpretation would be valuable,” he says. “I chose not to look at the original movie so that my ideas about Marco would be completely my own.

“This is a very interesting, complicated story, and my character is very complex. What Marco remembers about the ambush doesn’t coincide with what he sees in his dreams and believes to be true. So he’s very conflicted. He’s been taught what to say, but that’s not what he actually feels.”

Demme had already worked with Washington on Philadelphia, and was happy to go along with this approach. “Denzel is one of the greatest actors of all time in my opinion,” he says. “It’s not easy to portray someone whose sanity is in question – especially when that person also questions himself – but Denzel absolutely nails it. The deep, rich layers that he brings to Marco’s character enrich the entire film.”

The director did, however, consult a number of specialists in ‘brain control’ - an area where science has certainly advanced since 1962. Among these was Dr Jay Lombard, director of the Brain Behavior Centre in Nyack, New York. Lombard did indeed look at the original film, then thought through the story in the light of recent scientific advances, particularly experiments with electrodes inserted into the pain/pleasure centre of the brain.

"a very scary, reality-based Pandora’s box of brain manipulation"

“What’s so frightening,” says Lombard, “is that the movie lends support to how vulnerable our brains are to external manipulation, both positive and negative. Our memories are so tenuous and subject to malleability, it’s literally mind-bending. We all have had moments where we wonder if what we remember is real; and, if it isn’t, what really did happen? Essentially, this film opens up a very scary, reality-based Pandora’s box of brain manipulation. It’s telling us that all the science about brain behaviour is out there, and if used immorally, anything can happen.”
Maybe it already has.

Published October 28, 2004

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