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August 2004

By Julian Roman

The Manchurian Candidate

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Director: Jonathan Demme
Producers: Scott Rudin & Tina Sinatra
Screenwriters: Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris
Cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto
Composer: Rachel Portman
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Vera Farmiga, & Ted Levine



Jonathan Demme has accomplished something remarkable. He's taken two classic films and turned them into mediocre ones. The Truth About Charlie, starring Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg and Thandie Newton, was a witless remake of the classic Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn film, Charade. Now he's put a modern spin on the suspense masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate, with Denzel Washington taking the reins from Frank Sinatra. On the surface there are a lot of things that work. It's well acted and the story is relatable to current events. The problem is that the film is poorly paced and ridiculously contrived. There are too many scenes that require the willing suspension of disbelief to succeed. Demme infuses the film with a liberal agenda. There's nothing wrong with that, but it ends up looking like Fahrenheit 9/11. The difference being that Fahrenheit is much better at conceptualization its conspiracy theories.

The film begins in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and his tank company are reconnoitering possible invasion routes. They're ambushed and mysteriously vanish for three days. The story picks up in the present with Marco as a psychologically devastated man. His life after the war has been beset by nightmares and illness. Marco's second in command, Raymond Shaw (the amazing Liev Schreiber), has parlayed his war experience into a successful political career as a New York Congressman. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the company and leading them out of the desert. His vitriolic, right-wing mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), has maneuvered him into a spot as the Vice Presidential candidate for their party. A visit from a former soldier (Jeffrey Wright) leads Marco to believe they were all brainwashed and that Shaw is being secretly manipulated. He must get to Shaw and figure out who controls him. The fate of the country rests on Marco discovering the truth.

The updated Manchurian Candidate takes place in a world where the response to terrorism has gone awry. The film alludes to the US flexing its military muscle and attacking different countries in the war on terror. Meryl Streep's character of Eleanor Shaw is the kind of rabid zealot that shoots first and asks questions later. She is a dangerous individual with twisted morals. Demme is purposely satirizing conservative Republicans and their agenda. He portrays them as corporate pawns, bent on taking over the world. He also mocks the Fox News Channel, noted for its conservative views, by using similarly themed patriotic graphics on screen. The conspiracy is interesting, but so unrealistic. There are countless scenes where Ben Marco simply walks up to high profile politicians. This cannot be done, especially if he's constantly being surveilled by the bad guys. This is the only way the story can progress, so we have to accept these contrivances to follow the plot. Then there are huge sections of the film where nothing happens. It becomes incredibly tedious to watch. Demme should have edited out at least ten minutes. It would have added the much needed tension that the film lacks. Live Schreiber is astonishingly good as Raymond Shaw. He anchors this film with an Oscar worthy performance. Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington have the name recognition and do well, but are not nearly as subtle. They spend the film going to extremes while Schreiber takes a graduated approach. He is creepy and menacing, yet forlorn and likeable at the same time. His character is the pawn in the story and he conveys that part beautifully. I get sick of over-the-top, self indulgent acting. There's an art in understatement and Liev Schreiber has it down.

I purposely withhold any comparisons to the original film. There's nothing wrong with a remake, just try to preserve the quality of the film. I find the filmmaking sadly lacking. Demme could have had a great film if he'd paid more attention to detail and cut out the fluff. The Manchurian Candidate is a good film for the election year. It has many pertinent issues and legitimately pursues them. See it for the performances and a healthy dose of propaganda.