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"Remains a psychological thriller ahead of its time."
"It does what a remake is supposed to do - modernize without sacrificing the core."
"Despite the political pizzazz and updated plot twists, the film still felt like a rerun."
The Manchurian Candidate  

Cast

Ben Marco: Denzel Washington
Eleanor Shaw: Meryl Streep
Raymond Shaw: Liev Schreiber
Rosie: Kimberly Elise
Jocelyn Jordan: Vera Farmiga
Senator Jordan: Jon Voight
Review August 2004

Based on the suspenseful novel by Richard Condon, "The Manchurian Candidate" remains a psychological thriller ahead of its time. Released in 1959 at the height of Cold War paranoia, the book caused quite a stir, detailing an insidious plot involving Communists and American political power. Later, the novel was adapted into a classic film with Frank Sinatra, who played the starring role of Bennett Marco, a war veteran plagued by recurrent headaches and abnormal psychosis. Trying to find the root cause, Marco discovers that there is something more to his dreams - something that involves a Communist conspiracy vying for power of the White House. Now, more than 25 years later, Denzel Washington steps into the leading role. Although no longer influenced by the Cold War and McCarthyism, the story has been freshly updated in a way that preserves the integrity of the original, thought provoking nightmare.

During a routine patrol in Kuwait during Desert Storm, U.S. Army major Bennett Marco and a platoon of soldiers succumb to an ambush of Iraqi insurgents. During the ensuing firefight, Marco is knocked unconscious while Sergeant Raymond Shaw single-handedly saves the day. Or did he? In the years following the incident, Shaw is honored and decorated with the Medal of Honor while Marco is left giving speeches about his experiences to the likes of boy scouts. When asked to recount the heroic efforts of his fellow soldier, Marco can only regurgitate a canned response. And while sleeping, Marco has intermittent nightmares about the ambush. Meanwhile, Shaw effortlessly transitions from war hero to politician with no ill effects.

After being approached by a fellow soldier with similar behaviorisms, Marco begins to search for what really happened on that fateful night. And he seeks psychological help from a friendly source. In the meantime, under the imposing guidance of his mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, Raymond emerges from the shadows to become the front-runner in the vice-presidential race. While Marco dodges police and campaign security trying to get close to Shaw, he discovers more and more correlations between his dreams and reality, not to mention a microchip implanted in his shoulder. Closer and closer to the truth, Marco stumbles on a sinister plot involving Manchurian Global, a pharmaceutical research firm, and their attempt to fix the upcoming election by controlling Raymond Shaw. But who will believe him? As the election approaches, Marco goes to extremes, pushing all boundaries, especially those between insanity and truth.

In 1962, director John Frankenheimer adapted "The Manchurian Candidate" into a big screen production. Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and an Academy Award nominated performance from Jessica Lansbury, the film shocked a nation with its wicked satire, its open political views, and its ability to capitalize on the fears of a Communist controlled world. And it was no wonder that the film was met with sharp criticism and a growing concern. When Lee Harvey Oswald admitted to watching the film prior to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film was pulled off of every video shelf and locked away for 25 years. But in 1987, the film resurfaced and surprisingly, it had as much relevance as it does today.

A few months ago, I had the displeasure of watching a poorly made version of "The Stepford Wives." It was a remake flawed not because of poor production value, but because it made no attempt to reconcile the differences in a socio/political context. Fortunately, Jonathan Demme's version of "The Manchurian Candidate" requires no time machine to appreciate. It does what a remake is supposed to do - modernize without sacrificing the core. Carefully, Demme changes the nuances of character and condition. Communists are substituted for corporations, the Korean War is updated to the Gulf War, election coverage is now a media blitz, and hypnotizing is replaced with tangible implants. Oddly enough, the notion of a monster corporation conspiring to ascertain a new kind of monopoly doesn't seem far-fetched in this day and age. In fact, unlike covert Communists infiltrating American soil with mental persuasion, this becomes a real possibility.

Taking on the role made famous by Sinatra, Denzel Washington plays Ben Marco with more delusion and physical abnormality. He's dazed and confused, but without sacrificing his GQ persona. And more attention is spent on his slouching clothes and disheveled apartment, the opposite of what you would expect from a high-ranking army officer, than need be. Washington's performance is satisfactory, but unable to offset the energy and egocentricity of Meryl Streep's Eleanor Shaw. Streep's modern spin on Shaw is much scarier than even Angela Lansbury's because the evil she radiates is not easily apparent. Masked by political opulence and a carefree arrogance, Streep flutters around, manipulating and deleing out self-righteous barbs as if they were bullets. Says Shaw: "We can give them heat! Give them a war hero forged by enemy fire in the desert in the dark!" Like any mother, she wants the best for her son, who's portrayed mechanically by Liev Schreiber. Schreiber upstages his predecessor ever so slightly in that he adds a gentle touch of realization - that feeling that comes from knowing you're a pawn in someone else's game and you can't do anything about it.

Yet, despite the political pizzazz and updated plot twists, the film still felt like a rerun. Throughout most of the film, the pacing was slow and often repetitive, particularly the nightmares and flashbacks. And at no point, did you feel the future of the country was in jeopardy. Even though Demme accelerates the discovery of the implants to Act I, the sense of urgency is tame because it focuses too much on Marco and the personalization of his dreams. "I started with nightmares. Rumors and conjectures, that's a giant leap forward." The original storyline had much at stake because the characters were dealing with a foreign threat, an unimaginable threat that aimed to disrupt the very livelihood of everything American. But when dealing with a corporate conspiracy, (see "Tomorrow Never Dies," "The Firm," and even the recent "Catwoman") filmmakers have this tendency to shift matters of widespread significance into matters of personal survival. And in doing so, a pivotal political rally goes from heart pounding climax to uncontrollable yawn.

Nowadays, everything is being remade. Coincidentally, not everything is ready to be remade. In today's political climate, "The Manchurian Candidate" could not be any more poignant or timely - multinational corporations conspiring to do malicious things for competitive advantage. Just look at WorldCom, Enron, and Tyco to name a few. However, appropriateness aside, Demme leaves many stones unturned. The protagonist is made to look like a hero rather than a victim, the parallels with the current political landscape are mired in generalization, and the weight of the situation is diminished while narrowly focusing on events of the past. It's a shame the film doesn't burst with enough punch and pastiche. If it did, we just might find another Manchurian Candidate basking in the Florida sun.



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