The Manchurian Candidate

on July 30, 2004 by Mark Keizer
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Let's get one thing out of the way: Jonathan Demme's new version of "The Manchurian Candidate" is no match for the cleaner, more brutal and topically vital 1962 original, directed by the late John Frankenheimer. That being said, Demme has crafted a sophisticated and creepy adult thriller anchored by blistering performances from Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber. The Oscar-winning director has not been this creatively stimulated in years and this is easily his best film since "Silence of the Lambs." However, despite the high gloss and overall effectiveness, the film suffers slightly from a premise that takes liberal paranoia and fears of corporate malfeasance to unrealistic levels. Additionally, some nagging questions do remain after the final fadeout. Therefore, overall enjoyment is best maximized by approaching "The Manchurian Candidate" as a straight political thriller, as opposed to a supercharged political thriller with a message for our times.

The film begins during the Gulf War, when a platoon led by Major Bennett Marco (Washington, assuming the Frank Sinatra role) is ambushed by enemy forces. The unit is saved by the heroics of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Schreiber, sitting in for Laurence Harvey), who wins the Medal of Honor for his bravery. Cut to the present day, as war hero Raymond continues to cash in politically with the help of his Machiavellian mother Eleanor (Streep, taking over for Angela Lansbury). As for Marco, he's still in the army, traveling the country giving speeches detailing Shaw's exploits. At one such gathering, he's approached by a bedraggled ex-platoon mate (the always welcome Jeffrey Wright), whose reoccurring nightmares convince Marco that their Gulf War experience may not have unfolded as they remember.

While Marco digs deeper into what really happened in Kuwait, Eleanor channels Hillary Clinton and Karen Hughes to secure her son an 11th-hour surprise nomination as vice president in the upcoming election. Raymond never seems comfortable with Eleanor's strong-arm methods and, really, the film could have benefited from more mother/son interaction. What's presented is barely enough to establish the necessary dynamic. Elsewhere, Marco's investigation continues and, with the help of an Albanian doctor (who seemingly exists to make things easier for screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris), he discovers that his platoon was implanted with behavior-altering computer chips while in enemy hands. Marco needs to get to Raymond to find out if he's been altered too, and if so, what he's been altered to do.

All roads lead to Manchurian Global, a corporation so powerful that half of Congress and most of the world's leaders are in its pocket. And here the film takes its biggest leap--one that undercuts its effectiveness as a political statement. Since Manchurian Global is a stand-in for Halliburton, the filmmakers seem to be saying that a corporation can put a man in the White House for the sole purpose of starting wars and benefiting from lucrative defense contracts. That's a big pill to swallow, unlike the original, in which fears of Communism really did inspire a McCarthy-influenced Congress to destroy careers and ruin lives. It keeps the film from hitting its target as a cautionary sizzler, although Michael Moore will probably wallpaper his house with every 35mm frame. Also hard to swallow is how Marco gets to the bottom of the mystery and the sci-fi level of technology the bad guys utilize to program Marco's men.

But viewers will be sympathetic to any shortcomings when exposed to filmmaking of such a high order. Washington, whose excellence we're starting to take for granted, has great moments of quiet and desperate unraveling, while Streep has more fun than she's had onscreen in years. As for Schreiber, his cold stare and resigned smile are affecting and hopefully stardom awaits as a result of his terrific work. Supporting performances are solid down the line, including Jon Voight as the Congressman whose spot on the ticket is bumped in favor of Raymond, and Kimberly Elise, who steps into the original's Janet Leigh role. Composer Rachel Portman and editors Carol Littleton and Craig McKay ratchet up the tension nicely, right through to the sweat-inducing climax, which takes place at a way too overwrought nominating convention (it's an obnoxious little hoedown and no presidential ticket would approve a graphic adding their own faces to Mount Rushmore).

The film makes only vague references to the war on terrorism and never mentions President Bush by name. In fact, we're never sure what political party Shaw belongs to, which hopefully is Demme's way of making corporate back-pocketism a bipartisan issue.

Nods to the original film range from the obvious to the obscure. Fans of the 1962 version remember that Lansbury and Sinatra had only one scene together in which they exchanged no dialogue. Here, Streep and Washington interact much the same way, with only an "excuse me" between them. Understandably, Demme doesn't try to one-up the original's masterful brainwashing scene, in which Marco and his captured men believe they're at a gardening lecture in New Jersey. However, the director does tantalize fans by subtly recreating the first film's controversial kiss between Eleanor and her son.

The biggest compliment one can pay Jonathan Demme is that he manages to make his version of a Cold War classic live and die on its own terms. And despite some insignificant missteps, this "Manchurian Candidate" definitely lives. Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. Produced by Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Demme and Ilona Herzberg. A Paramount release. Thriller. Rated R for violence and some language. Running time: 130 min

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