Retro Review: The Manchurian Candidate

John Frankenheimer’s legendary 1962 political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate” is probably considered one of the greatest political thrillers ever made. It is always compared to when another assassination film, brainwashing film or conspiracy film is made.

Films like 1976’s “Marathon Man” and 1997’s “Conspiracy Theory” are examples of some of the successes and failures of trying to live up to Frankenheimer’s classic vivid thriller.

Now a film has come along that not only tries to live up to that classic but also assumes the legendary name. Is it a remake? Is it a “re-imaging”? Is it a success or a certified bomb? Only time will tell.

“Silence of the Lambs” director Jonathan Demme’s version of the “Manchurian Candidate” focuses on the struggling mind of Gulf War veteran Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) who runs into old war buddy, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) at the end of a lecture. Melvin asks Ben if he is having nightmares about their days in the Gulf. Melvin looks shell shocked and exhausted. Ben does recall having nightmares but always dismissed them as inflictions of being in combat.

After Melvin ends up dead, Marco’s world begins to unravel and his fears of mind-manipulation intensify when he digs an implant out of his upper shoulder blade. His nightmares deepen and he begins to see that another war buddy could be inflicted as well. That buddy is Vice President nominee Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber).

But how is a grizzled veteran like Marco going to get this powerful man’s ear. Furthermore how is he supposed to get past the man’s equally powerful and domineering mother (Meryl Streep).

This version of “Manchurian Candidate” is powerful, intense and has some brilliant performances from the film’s three leads. But it is vastly different from the original film.

It is kind of like the original except but only in spirit.

Since this version has played around with some of the events of the original but that does allow the audience to experience brand new thrills. But what sells this project to an audience has to be the performances.

Oscar winners Washington and Streep are always exceptional and once more do wonders with these characters. But probably the most surprising and delightful performance was from Schreiber. His Raymond Shaw is utterly brilliant and he steals some scenes away from the Oscar winners. I hope Oscar remembers him.

I also really enjoyed Demme’s claustrophobic directing style especially when it was focused on heavy conversations. Demme’s camerawork allowed for the audience to be almost like a “fly-on-the-wall” during these conversations with utter ease.

“The Manchurian Candidate” is great high class thriller. It seems even more powerful with it being an election year. In some ways it seems appropriate that a paranoia relic of the 1960s would be resurrected in 2004 when America’s political future seems almost as uncertain as it was back then.

(4 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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