New 'Candidate': The sorcerer's a Prentiss

Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most selfless movie I've ever seen.

Ignore that. I don't know what made me say it.

Because of its political nature you're probably wondering if The Manchurian Candidate is part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to keep Dubya from being elected (for the first time) to a second term. The answer: probably, but the message is almost confusing enough to cut both ways.

Although the film seems remarkably current, built around a presidential election and with newscasts discussing issues and events you may see tonight at 11, one visual clue pinpoints the date as 2008.

With a screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris that's based on the George Axelrod screenplay based on Richard Condon's novel, this can be called a "reimagining" more accurately than some remakes that have hedged by using that term. It contains many elements that will be familiar to fans of John Frankenheimer's 1962 version but enough changes to keep them from being certain what will happen next.

Updating resets the back-story from the Korean War to Kuwait in 1991, "just before Desert Storm," and changes the title's Manchuria from the country to Manchurian Global, an influential corporation that gets a lot of U.S. defense contracts and overcharges for their goods and services. (The Halliburton Candidate just doesn't have that ring to it.)

Capt. Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) was leading his men on a routine recon mission when they were ambushed and he was knocked unconscious. According to the story, all the men remember– in exactly the same words– Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) took charge, wiped out the enemy and saved most of the Americans, receiving a Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts.

Now New York Congressman Raymond Prentiss Shaw is in contention for his party's vice presidential nomination. A strong push by his mother, Virginia Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) helps him prevail over Connecticut Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight). (Jordan, who has "the black vote, women, and college kids," sounds like a Democrat, while all the other rhetoric is generic and centrist enough to come from either party.)

After addressing a Boy Scout group, Marco, now a major and a perfect Stepford soldier, is accosted by another veteran, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), who says he's been having dreams that things in Kuwait didn't go as they remember them. Marco dismisses him as suffering from Gulf War Syndrome/Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but is haunted by the man's words and sketches and has to admit he's having the same dreams: "My dreams seem more real to me than what I actually remember happening."

The 1962 film relied on brainwashing, but this version combines it with experimental implants, not explaining which does what or what is lost when the implants are removed, which is too easily accomplished.

Marco starts investigating, which makes everyone think he's crazy. They take him off active duty, leaving him more time to investigate. On a train he meets Rosie (Kimberly Elise), who introduces herself as a supermarket checker but pursues him so aggressively she's obviously got an agenda.

Washington plays another variation on his flawed hero whose heroism ultimately outweighs his flaws. Schreiber seems to be channeling Lawrence Harvey from the original. He's so withdrawn and asocial it's hard to imagine him having a political career, even with the strings pulled by his mother, to whom he's joined at the hip and sometimes the lip.

Ah, mama. "I will do whatever is necessary to protect America," she says ominously. Streep, looking like Hillary Clinton, is as strong as you'd expect her to be but no match for memories of Angela Lansbury in the 1962 version.

Perhaps The Manchurian Candidate 2004 will make more sense to someone who's never seen the original, or perhaps it will make none at all. It seems to lose focus occasionally and to leave a lot of loose ends unexplained, but that could be a factor of trying mentally to reconcile the two versions.

In any case, the 2004 film is a good thriller for today, but the original is a classic for the ages,