''This isn't really a political movie,'' Jonathan Demme says. ''If you had to stick a label on it, it's a psychological thriller.'' Demme directed The Silence of the Lambs, so we'll crawl into any freaky head space he dreams up. But remaking The Manchurian Candidate -- the wildest of political satires, a Cold War hot flash about mind control and assassination -- and not making a political movie? Is Demme just jiving or has he been brainwashed?
John Frankenheimer's 1962 adaptation of Richard Condon's novel starred Frank Sinatra as a Korean War POW, Laurence Harvey as his supposed savior, and Angela Lansbury as Harvey's mother, a Washington wife with pro-Communist cards up her sleeve. It opened to mixed reviews and cruddy box office; its classic status was cemented only with a rerelease in 1988. Demme on the original: ''Gosh, I can barely remember it.''
He was drawn to the project, then, by a story reimagined by Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and by ''the luxury'' of picturing Denzel Washington, whom he directed in Philadelphia, in Sinatra's role. (''He's an architect,'' says Demme of his star. ''It's just sensational watching him do his thing.'') Meanwhile, Liev Schreiber steps into Harvey's shoes, and Meryl Streep inherits the role that won Lansbury an Oscar nomination. This time, the plot has its roots in the first Gulf War. ''I'll tell you what,'' Demme says, ''my memory of the old picture is that the Cold War dimension was extremely topical, and I think that Dan has managed to tap into an enormous number of things that are extraordinarily pertinent today.'' Not a political movie? We wouldn't bet on it.