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.
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.
Now, 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
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.
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.
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.