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Mommy’s Dearest


The Manchurian Candidate [2004]

Jonathan Demme, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.2



Posted: July 30, 2004

By Laurence Station & Kevin Forest Moreau

Jonathan Demme remakes another '60s film (His Charade makeover, The Truth About Charlie, bowed in 2002) with an update on John Frankenheimer's grim 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Where Frankenheimer's version addressed 1950s topics like McCarthyism and the Korean War, Demme's update takes a more modern approach, involving itself with Desert Storm and a Haliburton-esque corporate behemoth known as Manchurian Global. And the films only grow farther apart from there.

Denzel Washington replaces Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, who served during the first Gulf War with one Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who's just become the Vice Presidential nominee for one of the two major political parties. Shaw has received this nomination, in part, because he's a decorated war hero, having won the Congressional Medal of Honor during an encounter in the days before Desert Storm. Problem is, Marco is plagued by dreams that plant the nagging notion that the accepted version of Shaw's heroism differs from the facts. As Marco goes about trying to uncover the truth, he assembles a conspiracy-theory jigsaw puzzle involving Shaw, his mother (Meryl Streep, nabbing the plum role that won Angela Lansbury an Oscar nomination in the original) and, of course, the aforementioned corporate giant.

The notion that a corporation would go to the extreme lengths that Manchurian does here just to control the nation's chief executive is patently silly. (The means by which Marco and all the other men in his and Shaw's unit are brainwashed alone taxes even the most tolerant suspension of disbelief.) Of course, to be fair, Frankenheimer's original was silly, too. Why, for instance, would Raymond's mother allow her beloved son (and we mean that in the most Oedipal of ways) to become the assassin of a Presidential candidate, placing her cherished boy in harm's way?

Demme's way around this flawed premise is to put a mind-controlled Raymond Shaw on the ticket, and dispatch someone else to bump off the President. This kind of paranoid fantasy, pandering to those who need to find a tangled conspiracy behind every war, assassination and major upheaval in history, can make for good satire (a level the original film managed to reach), but Demme doesn't go that route. He's more interested in crafting a taut thriller than in making any salient points about, say, Haliburton or our current administration. (Both get it far worse in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.)

One could argue that Demme doesn't need to hammer home such a point in our current political situation, but if he's trying to draw an analogy to politics in 2004, his film is too heavy-handed (in its pacing, its camera work and its score), and wraps up far too tidily, to provoke much thought or debate about dirty politics or the unscrupulous nature of power-mongering Big Business. (An ending in which the "good" guys don't necessarily win would be more effective -- see Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.)

One doesn't need to apply the law of Occam's Razor (to oversimplify, the most obvious explanation is the likeliest) to this Candidate's convoluted plot to see that Manchurian 2004 is more of a popcorn entertainment than a chance-taking, politically charged work. In that respect, it does its job nicely. Washington is someone the audience can root for as he tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to him and his men. Schreiber is more likeable and conflicted than Laurence Harvey (which works in this setting, as he's a politician, not just a politician's step-son as in the first film).

But even in the realm of popcorn thriller, this update hits a few snags. The film is doggedly anachronistic in parts (the back-room deal-making that wins Shaw his spot on the ticket ignores the fact that today's political conventions are empty spectacles devoid of such machinations; a key character gives Marco a cell phone number that begins with the kind of prefix that predated our current seven-numeral model half a century or more ago). Streep's conniving mother is drawn in far broader strokes than Angela Lansbury's character, and even the Oedipal underpinnings feel less provocative than in the original.

In short, where Frankenheimer rolled the dice on satire, Demme safely bets on box office receipts. The original will remain the one to watch for generations to come, while Demme's Manchurian Candidate -- like his The Truth About Charlie and Gus Van Sant's Psycho -- will be remembered as merely another competently-executed-but-Why? remake: entertaining but ultimately disposable.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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