Jonathan Demme’s scathing remake of The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare films that gets better with age, growing more politically poignant with each exposed cover-up, corrupt politician, and devastating corporate malfeasance. Upon it’s 2004 release, the film seemed too paranoid, maybe even loony for digging so relentlessly into the wide-ranging corruption choking democracy in the post-9/11 Bush-age. Now, Demme’s dynamic and often brilliant thriller feels like one of the most relevant films of the last decade, a diabolical examination of a cracking national ideology that’s not paranoid enough.
From the waving American flag pushing the opening credits into oblivion, Demme positions devoted but conflicted Army Officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) on the fringes of disjointed perception and horrifying reality. Marco’s quest to find the truth is more about alleviating his own interior monologue than unveiling an international act of treason, but the evolution of his momentum inevitably begins to represent a growing national outrage. Ideological symbols and political platforms construct a distrustful landscape brimming with faux nationalism, shunning the American everyman in favor of global power. The razor-sharp pacing, the nuanced mirror performances by Washington and Liev Schreiber, and Demme’s schizophrenically reflective mise-en-scene organically feed into Tak Fujimoto’s river of sharp hues, creating a cinematic stained-glass window awash in menacing red, white, and blues.
The Manchurian Candidate confronts the very essence of what it means to be a conflicted American in the modern age, the varying degrees of devotion to country and self and the greedy capitalistic center controlling us all. But Demme’s film isn’t anti-capitalism or anti-government, just pro-justice. The Manchurian Candidate is one of the few genuinely entertaining and sophisticated Hollywood films that is also a political manifesto on corporate greed and manipulation, a dual level for those willing to measure morality on film. But beneath the technical genius lies a brimming anger for the smug indifference of those willing and able to live in a selfish fantasy of their own design, a veritable Candyland hallowed by the real “evildoers”. For this telling dichotomy, Demme’s textural powder keg is nothing short of revelatory.