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Paramount Pictures

Official Site

Director: Jonathan Demme

Producers: Scott Rudin, Tina Sinatra, Ilona Herzberg

Written by: Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris; from the novel by Richard Condon

Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright, Simon McBurney, Vera Farmiga


Not since Gus Van Sant came up with a proposal for a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho has anyone come forth with a more audacious idea for a superfluous remake. John Frankenheimer’s original Manchurian Candidate was so much of its time that it’s almost impossible to imagine the story transposed to any other setting, or why anyone would even want to attempt such a thing.

This new Candidate trades Korea for the Persian Gulf War (ahem, the first one). There a young, unpopular soldier named Raymond Shaw (Schreiber) rescues his fellow soldiers from an ambush. Cut ahead and Raymond, the decorated war hero, is now a congressman, and being pushed for the VP position by his domineering mother (Streep). Raymond’s old army captain watches this with increasing unease as he’s haunted by nightmares of Iraq. Soon he learns that his dreams are not unique, that his former comrades share similar nightmares, which sets him off in pursuit of the always elusive truth.

Conspicuously absent from this new film is the bold satirical comedy of the original. Like Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate punctured the deeply felt tension of the Cold War with broad flashes of humor. Who can forget the jolly Chinese communist’s symposium on hypnotism? The deliciously well-crafted irony of the first film is here replaced by a deeply muddled liberalism that seeps through the holes in the plot’s logic. The film seems to want to say something about civil liberties, but with all the techno-driven paranoia it would be hard to see civil liberties as anything but an illusion. You would think they could muster some sort of comparison between the Cold War and the War on Terror, but no, not really. The film’s just telling us to look out for giant corporations and their mind-control devices, though it looks like they’ve already won.

The plot for the new Manchurian isn’t a carbon copy of the original. The plum role of Mommy Dearest (played so well in the original by Angela Lansbury) has been transformed from coldly calculating stage mother to a controversial senator. For the role Meryl Streep’s been given Hillary Clinton hair and blunt demeanor. She’s determined to have her way and she won’t be delicate about how she does it. Also for this new reworking, the role of Captain Marco has been expanded. Although Washington is once again playing the role of crusading do-gooder, his performance is nonetheless an improvement over Frank Sinatra’s, who was perhaps the only thing wrong with the original, Frank never being able to play anyone other than Frank of course.

In building up Marco, the filmmakers neglect Shaw, which I believe is a mistake. Instead of centering on the pitiful Shaw, a man turned into a pawn of a fantastical plot, the filmmakers aim for a far more conventional thriller, and as a straight thriller The Manchurian Candidate just doesn’t work. The dirty dealings are too obvious early on, so there’s hardly any suspense in how the story unfolds. The famously tense ending of the original is replicated, but this Candidate simply can’t duplicate the suspense of the 1962 version.

—Edward Rholes

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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