Years after his patrol's ordeal in the Gulf War, Major Ben Marco (Washington) has a recurring nightmare which casts disturbing light on his memory of those events, and especially an act of heroism by his comrade, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Schreiber). Marco takes his fears to military superiors, but no one will listen and he's left uncomfortably witnessing Shaw's rise to power.
Remakes of celebrated films invite disaster. So it's exciting to see an apparently re-energised Jonathan Demme coming back at us with his best feature since The Silence Of The Lambs, a cracking conspiracy thriller that's well-cast, slyly satirical and - as a solid, glossy, contemporised remix of a classic - rings enough creepy changes to surprise.
The smart, gripping script has been reworked from both Richard Condon's Cold War novel, in which an American soldier was brainwashed to carry out assassinations via hypnotic suggestion, and scripter George Axelrod's sophisticated, faithful adaptation of the 1962 John Frankenheimer film starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury (who stole the picture as Harvey's memorably monstrous mother although she was only three years older than him).
The original's plot drew on stories about the brainwashing of Korean War prisoners by the Chinese and the witch-hunting hysteria of the '50s, in which McCarthyites claimed that American government and society had been infiltrated by Communist subversives. That was in the good old days, of course, when an indictment of party-political machinations and extremism to left and right could be expressed in a nifty æus versus the Commies' tale. Now that the Red Menace is old hat and zombification by hypnosis is cheesy, we have the compelling charge of undermining democracy levelled against a greedy globalist elite. This is coupled with the conceivable threat of a multinational corporation stealing minds and souls with a little neurosurgery and microchip implants.
This may not be as sexy or have as much clarity as antagonists who have ideologies - and we could wish the sinister, scheming suits of Manchurian Global (including an underused Dean Stockwell) and the Shaws' liberal opposition (represented by Voight's astoundingly naive senator) were fleshed out a tad more - but it's certainly worrying. The updating is also well-timed: it's set during a Presidential election campaign, and Schreiber's cold but pitiable Shaw is the inadequate scion of a powerful political dynasty, a puppet of his ruthless, ambitious mother (Streep, on wicked form) and the corporate interests with which she's chillingly allied.
The status of the women has been upgraded from the original: the mother's from pushy political wife to an influential senator, and romantic interest Rosie's (Kimberly Elise) from merely 'the girl' to more of a sidekick with an agenda. Jeffrey Wright, meanwhile, makes a haunting appearance as a shabby, seriously disturbed former comrade whose nightmares are so unnervingly similar to Marco's that the Major is driven to confront Shaw, who tantalisingly admits he remembers what happened to make him a decorated war hero, "but I don't remember it happening".
How sweet it is to see Schreiber with a long-overdue juicy part in a big picture. And as Marco, Washington, every inch the star, is swell as both a sober and true career soldier, and an obsessive whose night terrors are making him crazy - or not, as the case may be. Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris' updated script draws in elements reminiscent of The Parallax View and some of the best JFK assassination theories, while Demme so deftly stirs up both classic and modern anxieties with taut action and the hint of real-life parallels that you don't know where this is going, as the suspense builds to a finale of unbearable tension.
Impressively accomplished and highly entertaining, with sufficiently smart new twists to keep you guessing all the way to the nerve-wracking climax.