The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by Jonathan Demme
It’s always risky to re-do a classic film like 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, but except for one glaring flaw, Jonathan Demme did a respectable job. Liev Schreiber plays Raymond Shaw (the titular candidate) as a seemingly in-control politician at the top of his game. But nefarious forces have set him up to have a successful career culminating in a run for vice-president while remaining firmly under their control. Mr. Schreiber did a fine job of making Raymond smooth and articulate on the stump but sad, isolated, and frustrated in his personal life. Raymond can always put on a good public face but reveals – subtly – his inner demons by his hollow and distant composure. As in the original, Raymond Shaw has been subjected to mind control, making him – as a potential President – under the control of the bad guys. Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) plays the hero who, having served with Raymond in the Gulf War, has the best shot at unraveling the plot. Raymond Shaw won a Metal of Honor after the men of his unit were mentally altered to believe that he performed an act of heroism – the first step in the process of creating the candidate. Denzel Washington puts on a great performance as a man who is thinking quite clearly but can appear at times to be a slightly batty conspiracy theorist. Major Marco is the character through whom the viewer experiences the story – I felt the agony of his bad dreams -- the war -- and his frustration when he has difficulty getting answers.
Kimberly Elise’s Rosie – Major Marco’s love interest – is anything but a typical girlfriend in a formula Hollywood movie. I don’t want to reveal too much about the character but I can say that I loved her spirited performance and I’ll be on the lookout for future projects by this talented newcomer. .
My big gripe with The Manchurian Candidate is the conspiracy itself: in the original, Manchuria is a region in China and the plot is by Communists seeking control of the American political process. When I found out that the in the re-make, the plot is by an evil multi-national corporation – Manchurian Global -- I groaned – when did I die!!? – why did they have to do that? How many movies these days involve corporate conspiracies – I-Robot, Catwoman, not to mention the big daddy, Fahrenheit 9/11 -- and that’s just the ones playing in theaters now. Is it safe to say that Hollywood has overdone the corporate conspiracy plot? If they had to update it – and keeping it set during the cold war wouldn’t have been a bad idea – why not make the bad guys radical Muslim extremists who surreptitiously convert Raymond – who still doesn’t look like an Arab in this alternate version – and control him via his newly-found religious beliefs? Well … political correctness would kill that idea but it would make a great film.
In most cases I like to see the villain characters well developed – an interesting array of villains is key to making The Bourne Supremacy a great movie, for example – but in The Manchurian Candidate it’s fortunate that the bad guys get very little screen time – they’re uninteresting, stereotypical scientists and executives so it’s just as well that they were marginalized.
Of all the impressive performances here, my favorite is Meryl Streep’s Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw – Raymond’s mentor and mother. Sen. Shaw is the archetypal political climber -- steely and power-hungry. She can be accessible, even endearing in front of the public but will rip you heart from your chest and show it to you before you die if you interfere with her ambitions for herself or her (unnaturally) beloved Raymond. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t in the original but in this re-make, there is an Oedipal thing going on between the two – at one point they kiss. That kiss alone should be enough to make you cringe. Sen. Shaw isn’t a major character but it was so well done and helped to show that Raymond is a victim of not only mean old Manchurian Global but even his mother – who sabotages his attempts at finding a girlfriend.
What, if any, parallels can be drawn between the movie and current events? (1) Manchurian Global = Halliburton; (2) Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw = Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton. There are probably others but those struck me as pretty obvious and undeniable. It’s interesting that the first one will appeal to the Bush-hating left while the second to the Hilary-in-2008-fearing right. I thought it was a nice touch to take a shot at both sides of the aisle.
Side story: apparently – according to The Wall Street Journal – the producers of The Manchurian Candidate (the new one) had considered changing the title but that the title has such high name recognition that it was considered too valuable as a brand so they had to invent a company by that name to act as the villain. I found it fascinating that the producers of this business-bashing film have such a well-tuned consciousness of branding.
Ever since The Silence of the Lambs, I’ve been a big fan of Jonathan Demme. This is a very well crafted film – nothing special in the visual department, so it won’t lose much if you see it on video or DVD – but the cast is great and the story is well executed. If the corporate conspiracy angle doesn’t bother you as it did me, you should enjoy this tightly-wound political thriller.
Photographs are copyright Paramount Pictures.
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