Jonathan Demme seems like such a smart and likable fellow, and for a while there his films were really something to look forward to. I can’t explain the one-two punch of remakes THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (CHARADE recycled, confirming what SABRINA should have proven: don’t mess with Audrey Hepburn vehicles) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the early years of this century. Despite cameos by the likes of Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour (TTAC) and Robyn Hitchcock, Al Franken, Roger Corman and Bruno Ganz (TMC), they are weirdly UN-COOL movies, lacking the charm of the old and the freshness of the new. All the fun stuff (Karina as a chanteuse? Sure, if you’re offering!) is incidental, decorations on a dead tree.
I finally watched TMC on a whim — I picked up the DVD for £1 in a charity shop, then found to my chagrin that it was on Netflix anyway, started watching it, got bored, decided to some back to it and found it was deleted, so my disc came in handy after all. So, I freely confess, I watched it piecemeal, which is arguably not giving it a fair shot. But I think I’d have had the same problems with it regardless.
Weird seeing Jon Voight as the liberal. But weirdly natural seeing him upside down underwater. Why is that? Then I realized: for some time now, Jon Voight ALWAYS looks like he’s upside down underwater.
I really like John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s original — this piece concentrates on its many flaws, but I hope succeeds in bringing out why it’s ultimately so satisfying. The 2002 version, I thought, was going to attempt to be a political update for the War on Terror, but even though Axelrod’s script for the original did not name political parties and Daniel Pyne and Dean Gorgaris’ does, the movie seemed irrelevant. Oddly, it ought to have deeper resonance now, with the idea of a puppet president, but since Demme’s Manchuria is a corporation not a foreign power, it’s the Frankenheimer that feels more of-the-moment… prophetic, even.
Sci-fi implants just don’t have the resonance of brainwashing, something we can still somewhat believe in. So we don’t believe in the device, and the Evil Corporation feels like a standard movie trope, not an impassioned political stance. It’s like Demme’s response to the Bush administration was to come out against Webscoe, the Evil Corporation from SUPERMAN III.
Everything about Demme’s film is perfectly decent. So instead of Frank Sinatra’s moving, anguished performance, we get Denzel Washington’s perfectly decent one. Instead of Frankenheimer’s taut, surrealism-inflected visuals, we get Demme’s perfectly decent filmmaking. Where Laurence Harvey imbued his brainwashed “war hero” with that rather hateful quality Harvey always had, combined with spectacular good looks, Liev Schreiber gives an exceptional performance made less affecting because, with his odd, features, he’s much more obvious casting as a Man Without Appeal. He’s like a thin George Bancroft whittled from cork.
Actually, maybe he’s meant to have appeal because the script makes a few changes, so that Schreiber is a vice presidential candidate who stands to get the top job, while Washington is the one who’s been programmed as an assassin. This actually makes a kind of narrative sense, or it would if it led us to a satisfying and disturbing conclusion. But a dark, scary ending would have turned this into a clone of THE PARALLAX VIEW, so it has to have a wishy-washy happy ending, making heroes of the FBI (who have received a surprising amount of positive PR from Demme’s career).
Streep is the highlight. I’ve come round to Streep, if not to her movies.