Mind Games Revisited

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Review of 'The Manchurian Candidate', director Jonathan Demme

The First Gulf War, 1991. An armoured vehicle on night patrol in Kuwait. Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is knocked unconscious in a sudden fox-fight. Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), it appears, saves his and the platoon's lives, for which he is commended.

Some years later Marco is struggling to come to terms with recurrent nightmares of treacherous murder, which it seems other veterans share. Shaw, on the other hand, has built a blossoming political career. Or rather his mother has. Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) dominates both her party and her son.

Will Marco discover the source of his torment, before Eleanor shoe-horns her darling child into the running-mate position at the upcoming party convention, and eventually into the White House? Will Marco ever get near enough to Shaw to find out if he too is dogged by the same traumas? If identified, who will snuff out this evil in their midst?

Paramount opened this paranoid thriller in the US as the Democratic Party convention began in Boston. It was still doing good business at the end of August when the Republicans occupied New York. The fact that its convincing depictions of political animals avoid correspondence with either the real elephants or donkeys is just one of its pleasures.

Director Jonathan Demme explains the thinking behind this meticulous balancing act: 'Many people today look slightly askance at the notion that we have a really legitimate two-party system going on. There is nothing fresh about the idea so ultimately what's the difference?... The game that we hope people will play, and it's irresistible, is to try to guess which party it is. What I like about that is that it makes us think about both parties a bit.'

A second delight of this movie is in deciding whether it passes for science fiction or not. Without spoiling things too much for you, the nub of the matter concerns the feasibility of methods by which our memories and emotions can be surgically and chemically controlled, as was also a theme earlier this year in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Demme's switch of baddies from commies to corporations is the most amazing ideological facet in this reworking of John Frankenheimer's 1962 Cold War original. Instead of the place where Pavlov Institute Frankensteins hide Yanks while they are 'brainwashed', Manchuria is now a capitalist running dog.

Original star Frank Sinatra acquired the screen rights and withdrew the movie from circulation when JFK's assassination gave the story too much resonance. His daughter Lisa, as its inheritor, has now co-produced this version. The quality of cinematography and acting compensate for a few slippery plot stepping stones.

A secondary pleasure is Demme's usual casting of smaller parts with an array of notables - eg writer Walter Mosley plays Congressman Rawlins.

The Manchurian Candidate is likely to fuel popular debate about who runs our world and how, as well as making for gripping entertainment.