Projections - Movie Reviews
The Manchurian Candidate 2004
The Manchurian Candidate
Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber,
Jeffrey Wright, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight

The late John Frankenheimer would find much to admire in Jonathan Demme’s remake of his 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate. The Gulf War of 1991 is the setting instead of the Korean War and the edgy, contemporary feel comes as the opening coincides with the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. With Denzel Washington leading the gifted ensemble, Demme’s often chilling adaptation may be considered a darker slant on Courage Under Fire which starred Washington and Meg Ryan.

Frank Sinatra turned in one of his greatest performances in the classic original as Bennett Marco, a U.S. Army major who has recurring nightmares from a recon mission gone awry in the Kuwaiti desert where his Gulf War platoon was ambushed.

Demme moves to the present after the opening battle sequences with Marco speaking to a Boy Scout troop about Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber of Kate & Leopold). His bravery from a tank saved many men and earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and Marco indicates that only 973 have been given out while at least 30 million soldiers have served for America. But Marco has had dreams and is developing a skepticism about what actually happened in Kuwait.

Marco’s search for the truth is soon propelled by a distraught veteran (Jeffrey Wright) who calls attention to himself during the motivation talk to the scouts that has him needing to meet with Shaw. In Marco’s way is Shaw’s manipulative, imperious mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), the role first played by Angela Lansbury. She’s pushing his bid as the next Vice President. No one’s going to stop her from helping him to reach to White House.

The screenplay from Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris works intensely from the original by George Axelrod off of the Richard Condon book. It gradually builds paranoia from images of brainwashing and torture in upsetting clinical scenes where implants are shown to be linked to subsidizing conglomerate Manchurian Global.

Maybe Demme doesn’t keep things running on all cylinders all the time as the terror alert reaches orange for the political convention where Shaw is primed for office, not assigned to either the Democrats or the GOP. Yet, the increasing use of tight close-ups goes from bizarre to dynamic, especially in individual scenes featuring Washington and Schreiber. Before Washington ends up in military garb, he’s a pro at letting one into the claustrophobic situation that has affected his very existence. Marco’s unafraid to be up-close and personal in a nasty way when it concerns Raymond and a shadowy supermarket checkout girl (Kimberly Elise in the notable Janet Leigh role.

Streep’s elegant vulture of a Senator has a field day with the Lansbury part and her voice has a smothering hypnoticism to it, especially in the later key, taut sequences. The politically-charged climax isn’t as well-executed here as by Frankenheimer but has much apprehension worked into it. Jon Voight’s vying Vice President candidate Thomas Jordan turns out to be a thorn for Eleanor as he leans of information about funding for Manchurian Global. The result is a telling scene aboard a kayak.

Washington’s second outing with Demme is subtly effective and different than he was as a lawyer dealing with the perception of Aids in Philadelphia. The role is a journey of unsettling moods aided by the music by Rachel Portman and Wyclef Jean and especially the lensing by Tak Fujimoto who highlights all the elements of dark ambiguity all the way to the mind-bending coda that doesn’t quite wash all of the misery away.

The Manchurian Candidate

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