Guided by his politically ambitious mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), Raymond Shaw (Live Schreiber) is being groomed to become the next vice president of the United States, campaigning on a platform of his war hero experience in the first Gulf War. Trouble is, his commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) doesn’t quite remember it that way. When the clues start adding up to an elaborate medical brainwashing experiment performed on Marco’s platoon during the war, the former military officer takes matters into his own hands, investigating whether or not Shaw is part of the cover-up, and how deep the conspiracy goes.
It’s a tricky proposition to remake any classic motion picture, much less one that many consider to be the finest example of the cold war paranoia genre of the 1950s and 60s. But we live in a topsy-turvy world, and the time is right for the candidate to rise again, this time through director Jonathan Demme and star Denzel Washington. Now the enemy isn’t the Soviet Union, but our own nation; this new take on “The Manchurian Candidate” is not only a superb thriller, utilizing the current political landscape for its own Hollywood thrills and chills, but it really doesn’t embarrass the original 1962 Frank Sinatra/John Frankenheimer creation either.
With the cold war unavailable to use as a backdrop for the “Manchurian” theatrics, Demme and his screenwriters turned to our current state of the union for material to knit together for a traditional thriller. The evil ways of corporations and their connections to politics are the catalyst for this film, which, for the “Fahrenheit 9/11” crowd, might mirror a current situation happening in Washington. There’s also a strong undercurrent of homeland terrorism hysteria in the story, providing perfect reasoning to how a candidate like Shaw and his corrupt political horde could rise to power. Filmmaking vet Demme, who really hasn’t made a worthwhile picture since 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” is wise enough to not indulge his sermonizing impulses, assembling the film as a thriller first, and keeping his personal agenda in a distant second place, though it occasionally gets the best of him (Al Franken cameos as a cable news reporter). Demme creates a mood of sharp political tension and fear, forming a claustrophobic experience, glistening with paranoia and despair. This “Manchurian” might be moldy leftovers, but the idea still burns with potential, and, miraculously, continues to holds water considering the source material for both films is a 1959 novel by Richard Condon.
Recently, Denzel Washington hasn’t been in the mood for an acting challenge, electing a staple of rigid, forceful characters over anything that requires an alteration in personality. It’s suited him well, even winning him an Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day,” but we used to call it “repeating yourself.” “Manchurian” offers Washington the chance to downplay his strength and play a character that is drowning in confusion and suspicion. Save for one absurd, insulting scene where Marco decks a federal agent, the actor plays the character by the rules of the story, turning in an almost revelatory performance, especially after his macho cake walk in Tony Scott’s reprehensible spring hit, “Man on Fire.” Washington holds up the film well with his sweaty concentration, internally conveying Demme’s steaming cauldron of distrust splendidly.
Supporting wise, Live Schreiber is chilling as Raymond Shaw, balancing between brainwashed political stooge and his heartbroken, confused real self. But the real fire and brimstone is reserved for Meryl Streep, who gets a rare opportunity to play the bad guy as Raymond’s conniving mother. I won’t lie to you, Streep is exceedingly hammy in the role, but this opportunity for her to eat the screen is entertaining as all get out, and she’s the only one in the cast who makes a believable foe for Marco. Demme even tosses in some incestuous undertones to the relationship between Eleanor and Raymond, which thickens the conflict between them, as well as profoundly creeps out the audience. Steep is mountains of fun here.
This being Denzel Washington and 2004, the ending of “Manchurian” has been softened slightly, removing a good chunk of its effectiveness in the pursuit of keeping studios and general audiences happy and safe. It’s Demme’s biggest mistake to silence the blow of the climax, disrupting what was up until this point an excellent cautionary/sci-fi tale of large-scale political manipulation.Rating: B+