Movie Review
The Manchurian Candidate
2004
Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber
C+


there’s a story about Mark Twain that I’ve always enjoyed, although it’s almost certainly apocryphal. According to legend, Twain was sitting alone in his room when he suddenly injured himself. In a fit of anger, he unleashed a stream of profanity that would embarrass a sailor, only to turn around and see his wife standing shocked and offended in the doorway. In an effort to shame her husband into cleaning up his language, the notoriously well-bred and proper Mrs. Twain slowly and deliberately repeated every foul word that had escaped his lips. When she was finally done, Mark paused, and with a thoughtful look on his face, responded, “My dear, you may have the words, but you don’t have the music.”

I bring this story up because it was one of the first things I thought of after viewing Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate. An audacious, brilliantly filmed attempt at combining jolting suspense with political relevance, The Manchurian Candidate ultimately falls short of aping the cynical genius of its 1962 forbear. The remake more or less adheres to the basic plot and character outlines of the original, but is unable to fully capture the mordant wit and political gravitas of John Frankenheimer’s bizarre masterpiece.

I desperately wanted to love this movie, and I almost did. Demme pulls out all the stops in his quest to make The Manchurian Candidate a lavishly paranoid head trip. The closing action sequence, a nail-biting affair revolving around the attempted assassination of the President at his inaugural ball, is set to the music of…Fountains of Wayne, covering The Kinks’ upbeat anthem “Better Things.” The contrast is vintage Jonathan Demme in its evocation of comic absurdity set against a deadly serious backdrop, and the effect had me grinning with appreciation for the director’s willingness to take enormous chances. The film is dotted throughout with moments like that, moments that reveal Demme’s clear (and admirable) intention to create not just a gripping plot but a disorienting mood that constantly plays with the audience’s expectations and, presumably, destroys their ability to figure out just what exactly is coming next.


Denzel finally tracks down his missing sandwich.


Indeed, the success of The Manchurian Candidate as a strangely disconcerting, ultrapop exercise in psychological absurdity may be directly responsible for its complete failure as a politically relevant suspense thriller. Demme and his screenwriters do their best to update the 1962 version’s masterful condemnation of authoritarians both left and right-wing, but ultimately their reliance on the shadowy Manchurian Corporation as the big bad corporate villain falls utterly flat. The buzz around this film is that it speaks to our post-9/11 times by attacking war profiteers, anti-civil liberties fear mongers, and relentlessly self-promoting politicians. Don’t believe the hype. Despite a few clever asides that are clearly meant to equate Manchurian with a company starting in “H” and ending in “alliburton”, the political critique that is supposedly at the heart of the movie is profoundly underdeveloped and maddeningly vague.

Oh, sure, we get a few potshots taken at big business, the political manipulation of fear, and even South African torture doctors, but when the Evil Corporate Mind Controllers are finally revealed to us, they come off as sherry-sipping, middle management stiffs whose greatest moral failing in real life would probably involve undertipping the caddies at the local country club. And where the original Candidate made no bones about directly going after right-wing McCarthyism, the updated version manages only a pallid and wholly unconvincing satire of centrist political rhetoric. Satires and straightforward political thrillers share a reliance on identifiable and clearly drawn villains, but Demme seems content to veer from target to target, taking halfhearted jabs at corporate political influence where stinging haymakers are needed to make the film work. This is one movie where less subtlety, not more, is required if the audience is to have a sense of the stakes involved.

I suspect this failing might be due to the director’s relative lack of interest in setting up good vs. evil battles compared to his evident fascination with examining the psychological and emotional warfare waged by the main characters. The Manchurian Candidate is at its strongest when depicting Denzel Washington, in Frank Sinatra’s old role as military commander Ben Marco, gradually coming unhinged as he begins to realize he has been brainwashed by unknown enemies. Washington’s performance is superb, coming as it does in the context of a career mostly spent playing upright heroes so dignified you can practically choke on the boring nobility emanating from the screen. Here, Denzel suffers a mental breakdown, shouting wildly at innocent passerby and communicating his utter conviction that mind-control implants rest beneath his skin with the wide-eyed sincerity of the truly delusional. The performance is so convincing that, had I not known from the original film how the story ends, I might have been persuaded that Capt. Marco really was insane.


"This time, I'm standing up for myself. She can't make me clean my room if I don't want to..."


Strong, too, is Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw, the Gulf War “hero” turned politician who is manipulated relentlessly by a harridan mother (Meryl Streep). If anything, Shaw’s pathos as the would-be villain who just wants to be left alone by outside forces is even more moving than in the original Candidate, as Schreiber invests the character with an almost Shakespearean conflict between ambition and inherent decency. But Meryl Streep, as Raymond’s U.S. Senator mother, is where the movie suffers the most by comparison to its 1962 predecessor. In that film, Angela Lansbury plays Eleanor Shaw as if possessed by an almost demonic presence, a relentlessly ambitious and corrupt woman who the audience had no trouble believing might be at the head of a power-mad conspiracy. Streep, for all her histrionic overacting, comes off as more of a nagging shrew than the Lady Macbeth redux she’s supposed to represent.

For all that, I would still recommend seeing The Manchurian Candidate. If nothing else, it confirms why Jonathan Demme is one of the most imaginative directors of the past 25 years, and features some virtuoso acting performances that almost elevate the material to greatness. But while it is an entertaining and occasionally brilliant movie, the remake simply cannot live up to the original’s inspired interweaving of the psychological and political. Somewhere, Mark Twain is shaking his head.



By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-08-06
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