Manchurian Candidate, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As remakes go, The Manchurian Candidate is better than most. It remains faithful to the premise and themes of the original, but, by avoiding a slavish re-interpretation, it offers some surprises to those who are familiar with the 1962 version. Yet there's still a problem, and it has to do with the ending. 42 years ago, The Manchurian Candidate capped off a Hitchcockian climax with a grim-but-reasonable conclusion. Here, the climax is just as taut, and the payoff is equally tragic, but it's immediately followed by a cheat. (If you see the movie, you'll immediately recognize what I'm carefully avoiding stating explicitly.) There's a falseness to the denouement of Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate that diminishes everything that has gone before it. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the reactions of focus groups compelled Demme to re-shoot the last few moments. The result, regardless of how it was arrived at, is gutless. Let's hope no one tries to remake Chinatown with the same mentality.

Putting the ending aside, as difficult as that may be to do, The Manchurian Candidate does a lot of things right. It corrects some of the most blatantly hokey aspects of its predecessor and weaves a storyline that is fundamentally similar yet sufficiently different that it does not feel like a bad carbon copy. Demme and his screenwriters have modernized the tale, substituting corporate corruption for Communist aggression, and using technology rather than hocus-pocus for brainwashing. And the politics have been updated in ways that not only make them more topical, but more brutal. Compared to today's electoral hardball, the game of four decades ago was almost civilized.

The movie opens in pre-Desert Storm Kuwait, with a U.S. military team, led by Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), scouting Iraqi troop strength. Their convoy comes under attack and they are captured. Three days later, all but two of them are found alive, having been rescued from the enemy singlehandedly by Raymond Shaw - or so the soldiers believe. Raymond is given a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics. Thirteen years later, he is in the running for Vice President, and Ben is having nightmares. The weary officer's subconscious hints that something awful happened in Kuwait, and that Raymond is not the hero everyone believes him to be. Mind control is involved. But when Ben attempts to discuss this with his former sergeant, he is rebuffed by the candidate's overprotective mother, Eleanor (Meryl Streep), who is Livia to Raymond's Tiberius. She intends to see her son in the White House no matter what.

In the original The Manchurian Candidate, Raymond was the step-son of a Vice Presidential candidate. This time around, he is the man at the bottom of the ticket. This change makes for a more engaging and suspenseful story. Most of the other substantive plot points change little if at all: Ben is trying to stop Raymond from fulfilling his mission, Raymond's mother is the most Machiavellian character in the story, and the ending involves a potential assassination. In this film, the "Manchurian" of the title refers not to Communist China, but to a megacorporation with its fingers in nearly every imaginable pie. No longer happy with having their interests represented in the usual way, they have decided that having a brainwashed president under their control would be a great achievement.

There's nothing wrong with any of the performances. Denzel Washington fills in nicely for Frank Sinatra, although he plays Ben somewhat differently. Washington's portrayal is more understated than Sinatra's; there's a little more humanity and less bravado. Liev Schreiber effectively captures the essence of a man who has had a critical part of his mind and soul ripped out. And Meryl Streep crafts an Eleanor that is mid-way between Angela Lansbury's emasculating matriarch and Hillary Clinton. (Streep has denied basing any aspect of Eleanor on Mrs. Clinton, but some of the similarities are hard to dismiss.) This is one domineering woman, and the possibility of an incestuous relationship with Raymond is openly suggested. The only one who doesn't work is Kimberly Elise, whose character of Rosie often seems out of place and off-key. She's extraneous and doesn't belong. It's hard to say whether this is the fault of the actress, the writing, or both. (The part in the original The Manchurian Candidate was played by Janet Leigh.) Jon Voight provides solid support in a small role.

Director Demme has never been one to avoid a challenge - his career highlights include arguably the best concert film ever made (Stop Making Sense), and adaptations of The Silence of the Lambs and Beloved. This is his second attempt at a remake - his 2002 film The Truth about Charlie was based on Charade. The Manchurian Candidate, however, is a far more recognizable classic than Charade, and it would take a brave man or a foolish one to risk the wrath of film buffs by making a new version. Demme is certainly no fool, which may explain why the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate is almost good enough to earn a recommendation. (And the "almost" would have disappeared with a better ending.)

Manchurian Candidate, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1