The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate

USA, 2004. Rated R. 130 minutes.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Jon Voight, David Keeley, Jeffrey Wright
Writers: Daniel Payne & Dean Georgaris
Original Music: Rachel Portman
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Producers: Scott Rudin, Tina Sinatra
Director: Jonathan Demme


Grade: B Review by Frances Nicole Rogers

Despite an earnest effort to enjoy it, I remember being vaguely unimpressed with the original Manchurian Candidate. That was a shameful blemish on my reputation as a film buff, like not being able to sit through Casablanca for fifteen minutes without getting bored (did I say that out loud?). So I went about my business, telling myself and everyone else that I liked The Manchurian Candidate, secretly hoping that Jonathan Demme's version would be better.

Frankly, I don't remember much about the original Manchurian Candidate besides strange dreams of old women who were, in actuality, communist political leaders, an assassination plot, brainwashing, and cards. I hear that Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra were in the picture, but I don't remember them, and I certainly don't remember any kung fu. It's almost as if I were in the same pickle as Ben Marco (Denzel Washington, in this version), saying nice things about something Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) did that neither he nor Raymond remember happening.

The “nice things” are glowing commendations of Shaw, purported to have saved most of his missing convoy from enemy hands during the Gulf War. His heroic deeds earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor and a sterling reputation he rides all the way to the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he's on his way to becoming Vice President of the United States after an election that will surely go to his party's favor.

Marco, Shaw's commander during the Gulf War, suspects something is not right. The glowing commendations and recollections of Shaw's heroism are all word-for-word exactly alike, with no variation between them. Eerier still, Marco is confronted by one of his men, Al Melvin (Jeffery Wright), who claims to have the same nightmares Marco has had for the past twelve years. Marco's attempts to approach Shaw are obstructed by Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), Raymond Shaw's ambitious and authoritarian mother. What little information Marco does gather convinces him that the whole of their convoy has been brainwashed.

Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber
Denzel Washington suspects Liev Schreiber isn't who everyone thinks he is in The Manchurian Candidate.

To appease film buffs appalled that I would claim Demme's remake is better than the original, let us first discuss the movie's (many) flaws. The beginning is so slow and dull that playing guess-the-supporting-actor (as in, “Hey, wasn't he on that T.V. show?” or, “Hey, isn't that Jeffrey Wright?”) is more interesting than the movie itself, even when Meryl Streep chews scenery like a starved goat. Writers Daniel Payne and Dean Georgaris make Raymond Shaw the actual “Manchurian” presidential candidate instead of the candidate's stepson, which makes more sense, as he will be controllable beyond the election. However, they still don't give us a good reason why Shaw or Marco need to be brainwashed assassins (one of the problems with the original script as well). Couldn't the communists and, in this picture, Manchurian Global hire a hit man instead of going through the trouble of kidnapping soldiers?

Washington can act, but no amount of good acting can save Marco from being a paper-thin character. Indeed, the script is full of paper-thin characters, although brainwashing exempts some (like Raymond Shaw) from requiring much characterization. However, as a protagonist Marco is neither sympathetic nor interesting. Okay, so he's trying to win back his soul. That is sympathetic, but there's nothing about him that makes you want to care after his story is done, and though Washington does a fine job, he fails to make a connection with the audience.

Also, the sound editor could do to listen to an actual political convention, as I doubt attendees scream as if they're at a Beatles concert throughout an entire speech. That's besides the fact that the news graphics of Manchurian Candidate look as if they are designed by some hyperactive teenaged fangirl who spends way too much time playing with Adobe Photoshop.

That, I'm afraid, is the end of the flaws. The rest of The Manchurian Candidate is a successful psychological thriller, one that steadily reaches its climax through a well-paced plot of creepy revelations. Demme's direction is both restrained, in that he lets the actors act with little directorial input, and demonstrative, in that he accents the actors' performances with visual tricks (bright/dark lighting, tight close-ups). He can at times be too demonstrative, with fade-ins and fade-outs that confuse rather than advance the plot, but even these do not take away much from the film. Rachel Portman's sparse and quiet score adds to the creepy undertones of the picture. There are no multitudes of themes or variations on a theme; there is only one theme that creeps up as Marco digs deeper into the conspiracy.

The cast is solid, led by the aforementioned Washington, who is often the victim of scene stealing. Wright, in his few minutes of film, manages to impress as Marco's deeply disturbed military colleague. Schreiber does a lot with a character whom circumstance has made lifeless and personality-free. He's as close to robotic as a human can get—far from an insult, as his character will perform any deed, regardless how dubious, without question because of his routine brainwashing. And then there's Meryl Streep. It's oddly fitting that, at the end of the picture, a character stands in front of an artificial sky, for at the end there is no scenery left to chew. Streep has eaten it all. She may be aping Hillary Clinton (which she says she wasn't) or trying to top Angela Lansbury, but whatever she's trying to do, she's doing it well, so well that she's a shoe-in for the Golden Globes next year (besides, those folks idolize her). As for an Academy Award? Hey, why not? Streep gives by far the best performance in the picture, and looks like she's having a blast doing it, too.

So, there you have it—my sad admission that I enjoyed (and remembered) Demme's remake better than Frankenheimer's original. Label me a heretic or an idiot if you will, but I would be lying if I said The Manchurian Candidate wasn't one of the best remakes ever. It sure beats The Truth About Charlie!

Review © August 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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