The Birthday Series – The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
At a risk of repeating myself, I’m counting down to my birthday by reviewing one movie that was released on or around August 2nd for every year I’ve been a booze-addled degenerate. Have a gander at 2005.
Remakes are a touchy subject to most film enthusiasts. With good reason, because nearly every remake is a cash grab based around marketing. Very rarely do the remakes live up to, or surpass the quality of the original. Some are offensively pointless, such as Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of ‘Psycho’, and others, like Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ or some bloke I’ve never heard of’s ‘Alfie’ are just offensive. What’s the point of remaking a successful film if all you don’t have something interesting to say with the material, as in David Cronenbergs ‘The Fly’ or John Carpenters ‘The Thing’? Maybe you want to expand the story, fleshing out the tale with interesting characters and entertaining action, as James Mangold did with ‘3:10 to Yuma’?
Remakes can be successful, in the right hands. Unfortunately they very rarely are, but every now and then, such as in the case of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, director Jonathan Demme has something to say. Something a bit different than the original (and the book both films are based on).
Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is one of the surviving members of the famous ‘Lost Patrol’. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, he and his unit came under heavy fire. Marco was knocked unconscious and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) bravely held off the enemy almost single handedly, then led them for many days through enemy territory to safety. Many years later, Shaw, the son of a political dynasty now led my his manipulative mother Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), is now a Senator and in line to become the Vice Presidential candidate in the upcoming election thanks to his immense popularity stemming from the Medal of Honour he received for his heroics. Marco, still in the military and heavily medicated, is resigned to speaking engagements to boy scouts where he repeats the story of the ‘Lost Patrol’. He is visited by Corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), who tells him he keeps having the same dream over and over. He believes that the events of the ‘Lost Patrol’ aren’t true, and he keeps seeing nightmarish visions of the unit being brainwashed. Marco has had similar dreams, and when he stops taking his medication, he starts to question reality. What happened to his unit? And why?
‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a terrific paranoid thriller. I must admit, I’m drawn to these types of stories. Ones where a lone person knows the truth, or at least knows that the truth isn’t being told, and seeks to uncover it. Films like ‘All The Presidents Men’, ‘JFK’, and ‘The Conversation’ have me riveted to my seat.
Director Jonathan Demme has updated the story for modern times. The book, written by Richard Condon and the brilliant original film, directed by John Frankenheimer, involved those pesky Russians brainwashing the son of a prominent political family, for the intention of being an unwitting assassin. That story was very timely for the ‘Red under your bed’ era of Communism in America, but it doesn’t apply to current times. Although with recent events, maybe it does! Demme has replaced the Commies with an enemy just as diabolical. The far reaching international corporation, Manchurian Global, whose plan is to get a sleeper in the White House. Someone they can control, for their financial gain, in decisions of policy.
Demme is an angry man. He veils little as he attacks multiple targets. The military, corporations, politics. All come under heavy fire. His contempt for his targets is palpable, as in an exchange between Shaw and one of Manchurian Globals suits. When Shaw states “If business where any better you are going to have more assets than the European Union.”, and the suit smugly replies “Don’t we already?” you can almost hear Demme’s teeth grinding. It’s a rare film that actually has something to say, let alone one made with such obvious passion for the message.
Denzel Washington is superb as Marco. He’s a shattered man, barely hanging on. He’s ignored the clawing doubt for so long, and his life has suffered because of it. But the visit from Melvin triggers the alarm, and he has to know the truth, whatever the cost. Washington plays him as a man on a knife edge. He’s at breaking point but his determination overrides everything else. Once his doubt, that he has managed to suppress for so long, is confirmed, his only choice is to find, and expose, the truth.
Washington is supported by the excellent Liev Schreiber, who has been brainwashed his entire life by his monstrous mother. There is real pain in Schreibers performance, as he’s been turned into a robotic mouthpiece, and you can see him struggle to fight the years of manipulation. Meryl Streep is terrifying as the propaganda spouting Senator, who is willing to sacrifice her real son, for the chance of power. But the quality acting doesn’t stop there, with the excellent cast filled out by Jeffrey Wright, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Bruno Ganz, Kimberly Elise, Ted Levine and Miguel Ferrer.
The film is photographed by the terrific cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who also shot Demme’s brilliant ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, as well as the genius that is ‘Ferris Buellers Day Off’. He’s one of the underrated cinematographers in Hollywood, and it’s always a pleasure to see his work, even if it’s not always a pleasure to watch his films (he shot ‘The Happening’).
There is a moment I would call a miscalculation from Demme. Towards the end, he has Streep lean in to Schreiber, and it looks as though she’s leaning in for a kiss. And he cuts just before the lips meet. This is entirely unnecessary. For the length of the film, a growing unease builds around the mother-son relationship. We understand the nature of the mothers feelings towards her son. We don’t need it spelled out for us. It is much more effective as a disturbing subtext. It’s the one moment for me that Demme gets it wrong.
The remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is one of those rare films that can stand alongside the original. It’s one of the most paranoid of paranoid thrillers I’ve seen, and that, my friends, is a very good thing.
Thankyou all for attending my 2004 birthday. This was a very good year.
For Droids a jolly good fellow!