Tulsa TV Memories

"The Manchurian Candidate"
A Review by Gary Chew


GARY CHEW/Sacramento

In this torrid summer of Michael Moore's direct hit, "Fahrenheit 9/11," moviegoers have been expecting the political heat to rise even higher with the release of Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate." It's a remake of John Frankenheimer's film of the same name that starred Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey. Unfortunately, the forecast is in, and I must say there's a bit of a cool spell on the way.

Denzil Washngton
Denzel Washington

Frankenheimer's taut, black and white original, taken from George Alexrod's screenplay of Richard Condon's novel about political mind control and assassination is not eclipsed one iota by the version which opened July 30th. That would be hard to do even if the re-make were a five-star effort, since there is no Cuban Missile Crisis or presidential assassination attached to it. This is after all, 2004 not 1962, the year "The Manchurian Candidate" number one was released. Equally creepy, minds in the late 50's and early 60's still held vivid memories of the Korean Conflict and the brainwashing of American prisoners by Chinese Communists. Oh yes, in those days, a northeastern part of China, which partially borders on Russia and North Korea, was called Manchuria.

Liev SchrieberNow, the sinister brainwashing of American soldiers takes place on a small island in what we must infer is The Persian Gulf. The war being fought is Desert Storm and the term "Manchurian" refers not to geography but a corporation: Manchurian Global. However, most of the original characters are in play. Denzel Washington has Sinatra's role (Major Ben Marco), but as much a victim, this time, as a hero; and Liev Schreiber (at left) is cast in Laurence Harvey's memorable role of the shattered Raymond Shaw. Meryl Streep plays Shaw's power hungry mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, a composite of two characters played so well in the original by Angela Lansbury and James Gregory.

The brainwashing going on is tied to an ugly plot to plant a mind-controlled person in the U.S. presidency. In the first film, it was the Commies a la Manchuria trying to bring it off, but in the new version, the evil-doers are business tycoons imbedded in Manchurian Global Corporation. I clearly recall my first viewing of this scary film. For me, not knowing what was going to happen gave the movie much of its power, so specifics are likely to weaken the experience.

Jonathan Demme
Director Jonathan Demme

Director Demme's 21st Century version of "The Manchurian Candidate" is a very typical, modern-day political thriller that one might see with, say, Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck or, yes, Denzel Washington. There's not a lot of characterization, but loads of forward motion of the plot with little time for "savoring" how awful some of the people in this story really are. That's too bad, because it takes away from what Meryl Streep could really put into her juicy character. She's good, as always, but the script just doesn't let her shine as we all know she can.

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep

Washington and Schreiber execute well, too, but it's difficult to say that Schreiber makes anything better of what Laurence Harvey did as the original Sergeant Shaw. On the other hand, comparing Washington with Sinatra is a little easier since my main connection with Frank Sinatra is via his stellar talent as a singer, not an actor. Sorry, Sinatra junkies, Washington's Major Ben Marco comes off a bit better for me.

I think I'd be okay if only the first "Manchurian Candidate" had been made, except for the fact that I wouldn't have been reminded, as the second film does, of how important an individual vote in this democracy really is and whether there's any wisdom in fighting wars with profit as the guiding principle.

Watch a trailer at ManchurianCandidate.com.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2004, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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