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Moore Isn’t Always Better

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espite the ludicrous audacity of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate remake, I’ll take his wild-ride satire of the War on Terror over Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 with pleasure. And not just because Demme introduces Liev Schreiber, as the brainwashed senator’s son, to the beat of "Fortunate Son." Or because Schreiber gives his first decent performance in a big Hollywood film. Or because Meryl Streep, as his mother, is the most hysterical Hillary-like senator I’ve ever seen on screen. Or because Denzel Washington, as a gentlemanly officer who divines the conspiracy that would send a brainwashed politician into the White House, for once doesn’t steamroll over his supporting cast. There’s not even anything terribly new about Demme’s plot update: replacing the original’s shady Communists with the shady corporation Manchurian Global — because we traded our bad-guy Reds for bad-guy blue-chip execs a long time ago. Still, there’s something glorious about this insane film. The original is more surreal and strange than most remember — from the wild hallucination scenes to the cartoonish fights, which cast frail Frank Sinatra as a kung fu expert. Demme mines the same vein, digging up all the techniques and stunts of B-movie madness and throwing them at the political scene. If you’re looking for earnest and righteous indignation, you will be sorely disappointed, because in the Demme pantheon, Manchurian draws more on Silence of the Lambs than Philadelphia.

A spot-on lampoon of the Patriot Act trumps the most hysterical scene of Fahrenheit 9/11.

And though I didn’t know it, I was ready for Jonathan to take all the over-the-top devices he’d invented for Hannibal and apply them to politics. After all, isn’t that how everyone storming into Fahrenheit 9/11 feels these days? That the bad guys down at 1600 Pennsylvania aren’t just conservative homophobic cranks with conservative politics — but, in fact, are full-blown, murderous, possibly cannibalistic madmen? Moore dug up some decent b-roll, but he didn’t show the bad guys drilling a hole into a soldier’s skull and scooping out a little nugget of bone. (This brainwasher extraordinaire, by the way, is played with campy glee by Simon McBurney, one of maybe two dozen theater vets who know how to play for effect). I fell in love with Demme’s Manchurian right around the time that Denzel, looking haggard and paranoid, sits down at an Internet terminal in a public library. Looking like a bum, he Googles for clues in the conspiracist web. Only, at a moment Demme overplays with the most sinister soundtrack he can muster, Denzel notices the security cameras on the ceiling are tracking him. And then you realize what’s going on: Thanks to some Ashcroft-like regulation, they’ve tracked him down. Through his library card. It’s a spot-on lampoon of the Patriot Act that trumps the most hysterical scene of Moore’s film — those sweetheart peace activists profiled by the FBI — because it’s wildly paranoid, perfectly plausible and completely unhinged. Not so much "fair and balanced" or righteously indignant as flat-out crazy. Which, tone-wise at least, seems to fit the tone of this election season just perfectly.  

  ©2004 Nerve.com.