A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 130 mins.

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

Directed by Jonathan Demme /  Written by George Axelrod, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris / Based on the novel by Richard Condon

John Frankenheimer’s 1962 MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is one of the best American films - gritty, suspenseful, tense, politically charged and flawlessly directed.  It was a film that was scary and based on a intriguing premise that had an eerie echo to contemporary America.  It was a film that worked on so many intimate levels – it was part thriller, part action picture, part satirical and political comedy, and part psychological horror film. 

It was a classic and one of the brightest spots on Frankenheimer’s resume.  Yet, as the critically, mentally bankrupted suits in Hollywood always seem to do with such a speedy pace these days, they decided to remake the film.  Why? What was wrong with the first one?  It is arguably one of the best thrillers ever made?  To remake that great film would be as heinous as remaking PSYCHO shot for shot (uh, wait, that was done already).  Clearly, a remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE would be artistic rape, and would only reveal the complete lacking of fresh and new ideas that Hollywood is demonstrating time and time again.  What possibly could they do right to justify a remake of this film? 

Well, as remakes go, Jonathon Demme’s MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE does was every remake should do – it remains legitimately consistent and faithful to the original film that inspired it (in this case, it’s a copy of a copy, the original was based on Richard Condon’s best selling novel) while, very importantly, not feeling the need to be a slave to the material and come up with something modern, fresh, and wholly original.  And in Demme’s more-than-capable hands, his MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE reveals itself to be one of the more surprisingly effective thrillers of the year and achieves a level of tenseness and thrills that would seem impossible to anyone who is familiar with the original.  The ingenious approach of the new film was not that it recycles the same villains of the first (Red Communist China and Communists posing as anti-communists in America) but rather its big, billion dollar corporations that are the evil entities. 

Michael Moore would absolutely love this film. 

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is a miracle of a film, and it does right what so many remakes (and thrillers, for that matter) do wrong.  To compare it to the original almost seems redundant and  perversely irrelevant.  People, no doubt, will end up talking in circles about how the two films differ and how Demme didn’t do what Frankenheimer did…yadda, yadda.   Of course the Demme version is not as good as the Frankenheimer film, but Demme’s works so very well, is masterfully directed, and generates real interest in the story and characters (some of which Demme and his screenwriters have carefully altered to fit the needs of their version).  It’s refreshingly not a carbon copy but a unique original all in its own, and I am sure that audience members who have never been exposed to the original will find the film exciting, suspenseful, and shocking.  This was something, ironically, that another thriller that opened this week – THE VILLAGE – forgot to be.  I will even be bolder and go one step further by saying that what Demme achieves that Frankenheimer does not is to have the villains resonant with more realism and believability.  It might have been unfathomable for Chinese Communist to engage in a conspiracy to take over the US government, but BIG CORPORATIONS…that just feels scarier! 

Scholars of the 1962 classic will no doubt find that the new film remains quite faithful to it in terms of its basic plot.  It opens during the pre-Desert Storm Kuwait in 1991 with Ben Marco (in another standout performance by Denzel Washington) preparing a team of US soldiers along with Sergeant Raymond Shaw (the always dependable a terribly underrated Live Schreiber).  They essentially are on a scouting mission searching for holes and weaknesses in Iraqi’ defenses.  Suddenly and without warning, their whole convoy comes under attack and are subsequently captured.  Miraculously, only a few short days later, two of the men are found alive and are gallantly rescued by Shaw, who was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his apparent bravery. 

I use the term “apparent” for good reason – Did Shaw really save those men?  This becomes readily apparent when, thirteen years later, Ben is having nightmares that conflicts with his memories of Shaw saving the men.  Ben soon stumbles on the other man that was saved who too is having the same terrible nightly visions.  Ben, of course, is scolded by his superiors and told to seek more psychiatric help, which seems pointless to him, as he’s been pill popping since the war.  When he attempts to discuss the nightmares with Shaw, who is now running for Vice President of the US.  Shaw feels that Ben is troubled, whereas his overprotective and powerful mother, Eleanor (in a deliciously vile performance by Merryl Streep) condemns and rebuffs him.  Eleanor is so overprotective that she is willing to do whatever is necessary to get her son in the White House.  Ben, meanwhile, desperately searches for answers, and as the film draws itself out, it becomes clear that Shaw was not the hero he deserves to be labeled as.  Ben fears something disastrous and frightening is at play here; perhaps even mind control and cognitive tampering by some unknown enemy.  

If you watch the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Frankenheimer takes his time and has patience at revealing the fact that the soldiers were brainwashed and programmed into doing anything their captors desired (this is especially true in that film’s virtuoso scene in which the soldiers think they are at a woman’s club in the US when they are, in reality, in a Communist stronghold).  Demme never feels the need to be patient with this secret which, let’s face, is probably very well known to most familiar movie audiences.  Demme even goes a bit further (and more graphic) in showing  how the soldiers are brainwashed, and those scenes are tense and shocking.  The soldiers are brutally taken advantage of and are subjected to foul and bloody operations which involve their brains being hooked up to elongated tubes and wires that look like they came from The Matrix set.  No, Demme does not mind revealing this too earlier or too obviously.  The wonderful thing he does do is let other aspects of the story take hold and radically changes various plot points in the original until I (a man who has seen the original dozens of times) was even surprised by the outcome.  The film had echoes of the first without downright appropriating it scene for scene.  The way it unfolds left a pleasant and relieving smile on my face, and I think it took boldness and keen foresight on Demme’s part. 

The new film has made several other changes to the original, none of which demeans or hurts the film in any way.  In Frankenheimer’s Raymond was the stepson of the Vice-Presidential candidate but this time he’s running.  This was a very inspired alteration, as it gives the plot more intimacy and the tone more frightening.  In the old version, the title refers to Communist China, but not in the new version, where Communists are nowhere to be found.  It seems odd that a film called the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE does not involve China in any concrete way, but Demme and company hit a masterstroke by creating The Manchurian Global Company, a mega-corporation with humongous reach and power that seems to have a part in just about everything around the globe.  Whereas the Communists had American partners posing as anti-communists that were trying to put a man in the President’s chair, this time the big corporation, which is growing lethargic and tired of their current state of affairs, sees a prime financial opportunity of creating a “privately owned and operated vice president of the United States” and one that is brainwashed into doing whatever they want.  Okay, the brainwashing part is not too legit, but the corporation, especially in our current political and socio-economic climate, truly makes for a despicable and vile antagonist making their attempts at a coup that much more sinister.  Both films also end in a political assassination, but they are both so radically different in the build up, players, and in the actual circumstances. 

Denzel Washington is very good playing in the role that many perceive was Frank Sinatra’s best work.  Again, he wisely chooses not to be a clone of Sinatra's performance, but creates something much more original.  Washington is much more melancholy, depressed, paranoid, and a lot more underplayed.  There is more of a sense of urgency in him and is much more emotionally tortured at the prospects of his predicament.  Sinatra was ultra cool and macho; Washington is more wounded and laid back.  Schreiber remains a bit more faithful to the original Shaw, which combines that right balance of inner strength and well-mannered dignity.  Merryl Streep arguably had the toughest assignment in playing the infamous role of Shaw’s mother that was originally played by Angela Landsbury (she won an Oscar nomination for her work).  Streep, like Washington, carefully avoids doing a retread of the original actor's work (both admit to have never seen the original while making the remake).  Landsbury was more forcefully theatrical in her villainy, but Streep makes her just as loathsome and cruel, but plays her a bit less larger-than-life and goes for more of a straight performance.  The one thing that is definitely not straight is the implied incestuous feelings she has for her son, which is made all the more clear in the remake.  She is one overpowering SOB, and Streep plays her with power and conviction. 

Demme is really the unsung hero of this remake, and is a director that has been tremendously underrated for years.  His 1991 Oscar winning SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was one of the best-directed films of the 90’s.  As he has done with other previous films, Demme shows in the remake what a master he is a subjective camera work, allowing the characters to freely speak into the camera to create a great illusion that we are the character they are speaking to.  This technique was largely used in LAMBS, and still used to great effect here to create tension and a creepy sense of paranoia.  I also like that he lets the film play out naturally and patiently, and shows a considerable amount of restraint in not going for the standard thriller showdowns involving bloated action scenes, guns, and explosions.  His take on the film is actually quite daring.  Frankenheimer was more or less targeting Commies, but Demme targets several groups – from big corporations, to government, to the political process itself.  When a corporation that is worth billions can control both parties and seemingly buy an election, than that is a disheartening and troublesome concept to take.  He gives such a larger, more global dimension to the conspiracy, and his tense and confident direction is his best in a decade. 

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is not so much an ill-conceived rip-off as it is a very self-contained and well-crafted political thriller in its own right.  Demme is no stranger to remakes (his THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE was based on CHARADE) but it takes a brave soul to remake such a cherished and critically admired work as the 1962 original.  Maybe that is why I was so pleasantly surprised by the freshness and originality he created in a story that many of us are familiar with.   His remake is a unique thriller about political terrorism and his modernizing of the story is such a perfect contemporary fit.  Demme’s remake is taut, chilling, and wonderfully bizarre and realized.  It's one of the best surprises of 2004, and one of the finest remakes ever made.

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