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The Manchurian Candidate (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

The Manchurian Candidate


Starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Sakina Jaffrey, Simon McBurney, Paul Lazar, Alyson Renaldo, Adam LeFevre, Robin Hitchcock, Pablo Schreiber, Tom Stechstulte, Anthony Mackie, Dorian Missick, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, Bruno Ganz, Jude Ciccolella, Dean Stockwell, BeBe Winans, Zeljko Ivanek, Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Forrest Sawyer, Ukee Washington, Sidney Lumet, Anne Deavere Smith, Roy Blount Jr, Fab Five Freddie, Roger Corman, Walter Mosley, Tom Chapin and Al Franken.

Screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.

Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 130 minutes. Rated R.

I am relieved. The new version of the The Manchurian Candidate is not nearly as good as the 1962 classic film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and Janet Leigh. However, it is a very well-done suspense thriller if you don’t burden it with the comparison to that film. Since that film was damned near perfect, it may be too much to expect for this one to keep up.

It is also hard to see what they were thinking deciding to do this film since the central conflict of the first film – the Cold War – no longer exists. Director Jonathan Demme, a terrific filmmaker, had been tripped up on his last film, The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, another 60s classic. So, I will say again I’m happy to be able to acknowledge that the new Manchurian Candidate works pretty darn well.

Since communism has pretty much left the building, this version of the film revolves around something even more sinister – the powerful multi-national corporations who profit from war. (Can anyone say Halliburton?) The central conceit of the movie is brainwashing, which also seemed more trenchant in the early 60s, but they do a good job of convincing us that it is a real danger.

The thing this film has going for it more than anything else is how exceptionally well cast it is. (Look at the cast list to the left, how many films can you mention with a deep bench like that?)

Washington is the glue that holds everything together, and he is well up to the task. He plays Lt. Bennett Marco, a career soldier whose squadron was attacked during the original Iraqi War. Marco and all of his men tell the story of how they were single-handedly saved by Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a soldier who took on and killed the enemy troops. However, Marco has been having a recurring nightmare that perhaps it didn’t happen exactly like he remembered. While giving a speech at a high school, Marco is approached by one of his squad members (Jeffrey Wright) who has been driven nearly insane by the exact same dream. When the man shows up dead, Marco can’t ignore his gut feelings anymore. He has to explore what really happened.

In the time since the war, Shaw has become a young senator and an up-and-comer in his political party. In fact, his mother, a venerable senator herself, has been doing everything in her power to get him in line for the Vice-Presidential nominee. Shaw is an unlikable but basically good man, and he has grown over the years to despise his mother. Meryl Streep has catty fun as Schrieber’s mother. She won’t make anyone forget Lansbury’s fiery passion in the original, but it is a perfectly good portrayal. (All those rumblings that her character was loosely based on Hillary Rodham Clinton are unfounded though, other than hairdo there is no real connection.)

From here the plot takes a series of dizzying twists and turns. I won’t go into too much detail, because much of the fun of this film is letting the surprises come in at you fast and furious. It just reminds you time and again that no one is truly what they seem.

Wisely, the new version of the film toys with the original’s plotline just enough that it keeps the audience guessing; even the audiences familiar with the story. In fact, the final plot twist had to be tweaked just because of these changes to the film’s structure. While this new ending is not quite as shocking as the original’s, it does make perfect sense in the world they have created.

So, go on and see The Manchurian Candidate in the theater. Then go out and buy the original. You won’t be sorry. (7/04)

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: August 1, 2004.

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