Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate (2004)




(director: Jonathan Demme; screenwriters: from the book by Richard Condon/Daniel Pyne/Dean Georgaris/based on the 1962 film screenplay by George Axelrod; cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto; editors: Carol Littleton/Craig McKay; music: Rachel Portman with the song “Fortunate Son” by John C. Fogerty performed by Wyclef Jean; cast: Denzel Washington (Ben Marco), Meryl Streep (Eleanor Prentiss Shaw), Liev Schreiber (Raymond Prentiss Shaw), Jon Voight (Senator Thomas Jordan), Kimberly Elise (Rosie), Jeffrey Wright (Al Melvin), Ted Levine (Colonel Howard), Bruno Ganz (Delp), Simon McBurney (Atticus Noyle), Vera Farmiga (Jocelyn Jordan), Robyn Hitchcock (Laurent Tokar), Tom Stechschulte (Robert Arthur); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Scott Rudin/Nancy Sinatra; Paramount Pictures; 2004)

“Its wishy-washy approach to these grave problems depicted lacked the artistic freedom of the original and thereby failed to say anything new or mind-bending.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jonathan Demme (“The Truth About Charlie”/”Silence of the Lambs”) directs this updated version from John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War political/paranoid/psychological thriller. Demme adapts his film from the same 1959 Richard Condon book as did the brilliant original. The slick screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris keeps things tense in a conventional way, adding on recent political developments to the more hard-hitting 1962 screenplay by George Axelrod. Instead of keeping it solely as a work of political conspiracy involving the Communist menace during the 1950s, the enemy now becomes a present day giant corporation, Manchurian Global, peddling ‘bad science’ and using newly developed mind-control techniques to put a ‘sleeper’ in charge of the White House. The motive for gaining political power is seen as more for profit than ideology (the original threat was seen against moderates to get an extremist into the top spot in a battle over Communism and capitalism). Demme’s version uses the modern world’s fear over terrorism to show how politicians manipulate those events to gain power for themselves and lucrative government contracts for the big businesses who support their re-elections. This new version brings to the table something that has become topical about politics in recent times, the troubling connections between big business and the politicos. It also points out the public’s concerns about the power of political family dynasties (Bush & Kennedy), civilian contractors secretly and unconstitutionally involved in America’s dirty little wars around the world, and the increasing loss of civil liberties that coincides with concerns over public safety.

Demme is still able to keep intact the original cultish film’s paranoia, its satire of politics and the horrors of psychological reconditioning (implying we are inundated with a clutter of information from the 24-hour cable news broadcasts but not much the wiser for it). What Demme leaves out are some marvelously inspired touches from Frankenheimer’s version, such as the soldiers brainwashed at a garden party and the giggling Korean baddie brain-washer at the Peking Institute. Surprisingly, the film still feels relevant. It captures the public’s fears in this modern age of uncertainty while the dark events depicted in the background are seen as timeless occurrences that deeply penetrate our psychological and social well being. Yet I never felt satisfied with it as a moving experience as I was with the original, even though Demme made the plot line more acceptable and the narrative more taut. But this film seemed to be meddled with by the studio people and its wishy-washy approach to these grave problems depicted lacked the artistic freedom of the original and thereby failed to say anything new or mind-bending. The performances by Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber were very good but not necessarily better than their predecessors Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. They were nuanced differently and acceptable on their own terms. Overall the performances were more riveting in the original, especially Angela Lansbury’s more gleefully acerbic one compared to Meryl Streep’s broader take on her serpentine character. The film seemed to lack the fire in its belly to be bold in its political manifesto and to be convincing that there’s something so wrong with Beltway politics that it’s terrifying. This film does the same weak thing as those newscast it continuously features throughout–never coming down hard on how corrupt and unwilling to change the system has really become. It still doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger and say what it already pointed out about how sinister the political system is and how bought off are both parties and how the media is more interested in ratings than the truth. Instead it shifts to a softer ending after exposing corporate corruption, no doubt influenced by some marketing surveys on how to sell the picture to a massive multiplex mall audience (this awkward ending, probably, can’t be blamed on Demme).

Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) was a captain during the Gulf War and the career soldier has since become a major suffering severely from Gulf War Syndrome and an unstable mental condition, whereby he’s treated by army shrinks. The veteran is haunted by recurring nightmares involving the creepy, loner squad-leader sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who served under him in a 1991 pre-Desert Storm mission in Kuwait. Ben was knocked unconscious during an ambush and therefore can’t recall what happened. The men swear that Raymond shot down enemy planes and saved all their lives but for two. On the gushing parrot-like testimony of the men who never liked him and the recommendation of Ben, Raymond is declared a war hero and receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. Some time later after Ben encounters a fellow squad member on the Kuwaiti mission, the destitute and mentally troubled Corporal Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), also suffering from an untreated Gulf War Syndrome, Ben finds out that he also is having similarly strange dreams about the fracas questioning the veracity of Raymond as a hero.

Raymond, an obscure congressman from New York, the son of an overbearing, ambitious, power-hungry Virginia senator, Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), is announced as the vice presidential candidate. Raymond’s monstrous mom, sponsored by contributions from Manchurian Global, a company where she’s a member of the board, has just coerced the party through back room power-broker politics to put her mama’s boy son on the ticket to unseat the opposing unpopular incumbents. The self-serving patriotic senator played hardball with the party officials and got them to bump the ethical liberal veteran senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight) off the ticket. The patrician acting Raymond is not all that pleased, because he sort of likes Jordan. The only girl Raymond ever loved was Jordan’s daughter Jocelyn (Farmiga), but Raymond’s mom broke up the romance saying she wasn’t good enough for her son. The Oedipal complex is never developed further than what appears on surface and questions about incest are played down, though incest is strongly hinted at.

When Ben comes to New York and talks with Raymond, he realizes that something is not right about what happened in their Kuwait mission and urges Ben to quit the presidential race and talk to the Pentagon people to straighten things out. When rebuffed Ben’s concerns for the truth lead him to discover that all the men in his platoon were brainwashed with implants provided by a rogue South African scientist Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney), who while working for Manchurian Global used the men unwittingly to do what the corporation wanted. Ben removes an implant from the back of his shoulder, but it rolls down the sink drain before he can secure it to show the Pentagon officials as proof. Nevertheless he tells them his story, but they think he’s become very ill because of his incurable disease and will eventually discharge him from the service. It all leads to the potential assassination of the next president and whether Ben is well enough to stop it.

Kimberly Elise has a small part as an FBI agent keeping track of Washington in an inconsequential role that seemed more confusing to the story than enlightening, while Bruno Ganz has an even smaller part as a maverick scientist Washington goes to for help but is told his paranoia is due to the Gulf War Syndrome.

I usually don’t see the need for remakes of films that were classics. Furthermore to make one that is not the groundbreaking or shocking pulp-like drama the original was, only leaves me feeling that this film was not necessary. Though this one is good enough to be entertaining in this election year and to its credit catches some of the political dangers of this modern age–its improvements are mostly by way of the bright color cinematography by Tak Fujimoto and other unimportant cosmetic advances. It was just too flaccid and compromised a work to be perceived as even remotely as good as the original, especially since it never had the guts to follow through on all it uncovers and put some real meaning into the thorough takeover of corporations in the political arena–something that’s old news already.