The Manchurian Candidate

In 1962 John Frankenheimer made the original Manchurian Candidate from the novel by Richard Condon. It was a perfect gem of a movie, that provided career highlights for the director, Frank Sinatra (his acting career, anyway) and Angela Lansbury. Darkly comic, it relfected cold war paranoia, and yet holds up so well, that when it was brought out of its 25 year hiatus, (imposed by copywrite holder Sinatra in 1963 because of the JFK assasination) it still seemed relevant. If you haven’t seen it, do so at once.

So, how does the remake hold up? Surprisingly well.

The plot is the same expect for some particulars. A troop of American soldiers in Desert Storm is captured, brainwashed and released by operatives of a huge global conglomerate called Manchurian. Years later, the Major in charge of the troop, Ben Marco, played by Denzel Washington senses that something is wrong with the cover story that has been programmed into them. And he’s not the only one who’s been having disturbing dreams that clash with what he remembers. Which is that the troop sergeant, Ray Shaw, played by Liev Schreiber, fought off an Iraqi ambush single handedly and led them in a three day trek through enemy territory.

With some pressure from his domineering mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw, played by Meryl Streep, Ray has become a congressman and is being considered as a potential vice presidential candidate. Marco, driven by his dreams, delves deeper into the mystery and discovers conspiracies inside conspiracies. He doesn’t know who to trust. I won’t spoil it by going any further.

Jonathan Demme, the director is very conscious of doing a remake. The film is structured like the original and uses some of the same imagery. Liev Schreiber is almost doing an impersonation of Laurence Harvey’s bloodless, yet taut performance in the original. There is the same use of banal small talk, which instead of being boring, amps up the tension. This tatic of referencing the first film is tipped off by the first song on the soundtrack, which is a cover of CCR’s Fortunate Son-it’s a lame cover, but it gets the point across. Demme knows he’s not going to better Frankenheimer, so he calls back to the original, paying respects, so we won’t begrudge this film’s shortcomings. The strategy actually works.

Let’s cover what’s good, first. Denzel steps out of his natty persona of quiet authority to portray a man trying to hang on to his reality and do the right thing. Streep is in full Oscar baiting form as a right wing harridan fully capable of eating her own young if it will advance her agenda. Anyone who watches Fox News will find her performance familiar.

As for the bad, the film is too long. There is far too much dialog and not enough action for a 130 minute film. Much of this is wasted in plot hints that go nowhere. For instance, Marco is accused of murdering a member of his old troop in one scene. Nothing comes of it. The camera angles and some of the effects call attention to themselves. The close ups are a little too close at times-a choice but not a very good one.

But the main flaw is that it’s not the 1962 version and I think that it’s good enough that we can forgive it for that.

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