Movie Reviews

Movie Review – The Manchurian Candidate (2004): The Wrong Time for a Thriller About a Presidential Race?

Written by Richard Condon, George Axelrod, Daniel Pyne, and Dean Georgaris
Directed by Jonathan Demme

I hadn’t seen the original Manchurian Candidate until a few months prior to seeing the remake. A discussion around one of my Star Trek reviews was what prompted me to rent the original, so that was still fresh in my mind when I first saw this film.

The film moves between the year 2004 and events during the first Gulf War. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is leading his unit on a patrol with a civilian contractor when they are apparently ambushed. Among those in his unit is Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). While Marco is unconscious, Shaw takes command and leads the troops to safety, earning him the congressional medal of honor, or so they think.

This is the area of a major problem between the old film and the new one. Where the old one kept its hand hidden for so long, showing Marco’s trauma through a series of disjointed flashbacks, the new version lays its cards on the table early on. I can only assume that writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris along with director Jonathan Demme also assumed everyone who would be seeing the film was already familiar with the story. It’s a shame because I think the same psychological build-up could have been achieved even knowing the original story.

Instead, viewers of this remake will wonder if and how the plan which has been set in motion by the evil Manchurian Global Corporation and its henchmen will be thwarted. Ben Marco and others from the unit are having nightmares. It’s being written off by the Army as Gulf War Syndrome. After a visit from any one of the men in his unit, Marco can’t ignore what’s happening any longer and he begins to dig deeper, even into his shoulder at one point in a particularly gruesome scene that had the audience cringing. Is it all crazy paranoia fueled by the crazies of the Internet (gosh I wish I’d written down Jon Voight’s quote on that subject) or is there more going on? Of course, we know already at this point that there is more to it.

Washington is terrific as Ben Marco. He gives him just the right amount of indecision about what he is feeling and doing at the beginning of the film and his convictions seem to be changing as he goes through it. He is saddled with the burden of viewers knowing the story and still trying to make it suspenseful, whereas the Frank Sinatra version of this character in the original was giving out the puzzle pieces of the story one at a time. Washington does a good job, though, portraying Marco as he wanders through the information age with images right at his fingertips and reminders of what happened blaring at him from televisions as Raymond Shaw enters the Presidential race. Right from the opening sequence where he’s talking to a group of Boy Scouts, he is playing the honored and highly-regarded war veteran, yet he seems wound just a bit too tight. He’s an actor playing a man who’s also acting; playing the role of those Scouts.

Liev Schreiber is excellent as Raymond Shaw. He seems to draw on his past of playing seemingly innocuous characters who are harboring a deep secret; who are trusted among the group, yet maybe they are the ones you should watch out for. He talks of his one act of defiance of his overbearing mother, and he gave me the impression that it was his only “real” moment of personality during the film. Any time he was alone with Washington, he seemed as if he were possibly on the edge of letting his real personality through, only to lose himself again in what his mother had ingrained him in the years under her tutelage and high expectations.

The role of Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep. I hope she’s making room on her mantle because I see an Oscar coming her way. She’s a woman who yearns for the power of the Oval Office and is stuck in what is still a man’s world. She abounds decorum in the public eye, but behind the scenes, she’s a hell-bitch on wheels and God help anyone who gets in her path. She’s the daughter of a Senator herself, married (and mysteriously widowed) a Senator, and controlled her son from day one, probably grooming him to take the Oval Office. When he goes off to the Army in defiance, Eleanor does what any good mother should. She doesn’t bake cookies or send him care packages, she engineers it so she will have complete control over him once again and he will be her puppy dog. Streep brings a hunger for power to this role which is brilliant as she stomps around her party’s convention, making the speeches that will surely turn the tide her way. She’s brilliant at convincing people that she honestly believes the rhetoric she’s speaking.

It would be hard to say that the film was designed to show one particular political party, and that was a distraction for me. I just didn’t see it and I kept looking for it. Much of the political speeches espoused by both Raymond Shaw and his mother seemed to be more of the rhetoric that comes from the left. Sure, Manchurian Global may seem too similar to corporations like The Carlyle Group and Halliburton, and Streep does have those Barbara Bush pearls… Hmm. But really, it seemed more like Demme was walking a careful line to make sure this wasn’t a jab at any one particular party.

The supporting roles are good. Jon Voight has a good turn as would-be Vice Presidential candidate Senator Thomas Jordan. He’s probably more disgusted with his party than bitter about being passed over for the nomination, and it shows. His daughter, Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga) is scaled way back. She’s the old love interest of Raymond but there’s really nothing there any longer, although Raymond seems to still harbor some feelings for her. The role of Rosie is transformed greatly from the original film and handled very well. Instead of just being Marco’s love interest and security zone, here she’s transformed into a smart, savvy, and very capable woman in her own right who also harbors a secret. Kimberly Elise portrays her with just the right amount of strength when it’s needed, backing off when it’s not needed.

Spoiler alert!

I liked the ending of the original better and I think I would have liked this version better if it had ended with the assassination or with Washington’s character committing suicide after the assassination. What was great about the original was that the Chinese Communists weren’t deposed at the end – they were still in power, so the enemy was still out there. Here, it seemed we were being led to believe that the nefarious plot of Manchurian Global was exposed and all was about to be set right with the world. Ben Marco is even “saved” from committing suicide by Rosie, and I think it just wrapped the film up entirely too neatly. I would have preferred the ending left a bit more ambiguous.

End Spoiler!

It’s a good movie for a summer night, but will people want to see a movie about a Presidential race after what we’ve been through these last few years? I think the timing might work against it as people are in overload and looking for an escape from what’s blaring out at them from the 24-hour news channels. Still, this is a good remake.

I’d probably give it 3 1/2 stars if I was able to. The performances are excellent, but the story gives away its secret too soon. There is build-up toward whether the nefarious plan will succeed or not, but the movie plods in the middle since the main secret was already told in the beginning.

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