The Manchurian Candidate

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Jonathan Demme’s last remake, “The Truth About Charlie,” was a disappointment, but with his retelling of “The Manchurian Candidate,” he gets it right. Not that I want to encourage him to keep re-doing other people’s movies instead of coming up with his own, but this is a crackling good thriller.

It’s even better if you’ve seen the original. The world is so different today from what it was in 1963 that, even with essentially the same storyline, the new film seems light years away. Comparing the two films is striking. We are more cynical now, more suspicious — and rightfully so, it sometimes seems. The film matches that perfectly.

This time, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a Persian Gulf War veteran plagued with nightmares and on the verge of insanity; he has met some of his fellow veterans who have already gone off the deep end. In 1991, two men in his unit were killed in an ambush while Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) strove to save the platoon. Shaw was given the Medal of Honor and is now, years later, suddenly the vice-presidential nominee for his party, despite being introverted and quiet and despite Sen. Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight) having been the frontrunner for that position.

Shaw, a senator himself, is the child of senators, one dead and one quite alive, the formidable Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). Mom has orchestrated most of Raymond’s career, pushing him forward when he would rather retreat to the background.

It becomes Marco’s theory that something happened in the Persian Gulf, hinted at by flashes of memory he’s having. He believes there was hypnosis, and that he and others have been manipulated since then by whoever was behind it. As an audience, we know he’s right: We get to see it in action a few times before the full scheme is revealed, always accompanied by an infusion of light and sound effects reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone.”

Demme effectively creates an atmosphere of oddness, giving the film an off-kilter feeling appropriate for its characters’ disorientation. If the film has a weakness, it is that it has opposition for its characters without giving them an actual villain to fight against, at least for most of the running time. They dread, but they (and we) don’t know WHAT they’re dreading.

Washington, Schreiber and Streep are all characteristically strong, with Jon Voight and Vera Farmiga (as his daughter, an object of Raymond Shaw’s affection) adding nuance to the supporting roles. The political satire is subtle, often funny and alarming simultaneously, and the film never forgets to thrill us.

B (2 hrs.; R, scattered profanity, one F-word, some moderately graphic violence.)

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