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Dustin Putman

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The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Jonathan Demme
Cast: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Simon McBurney, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Miguel Ferrer, Ted Levine, Sakina Jaffrey, David Keeley, Paul Lazar, Robyn Hitchcock, Pablo Schreiber, Adam LeFevre, Bruno Ganz, Jude Ciccolella, Dean Stockwell, John Bedford Lloyd, Teddy Dunn, Joaquin Perez-Campbell, Anthony Mackie, Tom Stechschulte, Dorian Missick, Alyson Renaldo, BeBe Winans, Darrell Larson, Zeljko Ivanek, Obba Babatunde, Charles Napier, Harry Northup, Robert W. Castle, Al Franken, Tracey Walter, Ann Dowd, Roger Corman
2004 – 135 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 17, 2004.

An updated remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic, starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury—intentionally unseen by me (I wanted a fresh perspective without any preconceived notions or biases)—Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate" stands firmly and with great assuredness as its own entity. Not only is the premise exceedingly relevant, ahead of its time forty years ago and still freshly conceived today, but the film also works as one of this summer's most fulfilling cinematic experiences for adult audiences. "The Manchurian Candidate" is absolutely riveting entertainment, a chilling portrait of human paranoia also posing as an engrossing and visually vibrant political thriller. For director Demme, this is as complete a motion picture from him as any since 1993's "Philadelphia" or maybe even 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs." For audiences who have never watched the original, they will be on the edge of their seat and unable to guess where the story is leading at any given moment. As for those who are familiar with the former version, you're on your own.

Thirteen years after serving in the Gulf War, U.S. Army Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is secretly plagued by horrific nightmares at odds with the inspiring speeches he gives concerning his platoon's victory during an ambush in the Kuwaiti desert. Marco's memory, as everyone else's in his platoon, tells him of the heroic actions of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) that led to him receiving the Medal of Honor, but Marco has no first-hand recollection of it. Worse, his dreams are filled with visions of kidnapping, murder, mind-control, and brainwashing amongst those he fought beside. When Raymond Shaw miraculously is chosen as a Vice President candidate under the stern eyes of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), Marco sets out to prove there is more—much more—to their experiences at war, and that Raymond Shaw may not be the admirable man he himself believes. If Marco can't find a way to unveil the truth in time, the future of the United States presidency, and his own sanity, will be a stake.

Exquisitely written by Daniel Pyne (2002's "The Sum of All Fears") and Dean Georgaris (2003's "Paycheck") with a real know-how of distinguishing realistic characters within a frightening, extravagant thriller plot that might be less far-fetched than it first appears, "The Manchurian Candidate" tightens its screws to a near-perfect pitch. With suitable references to the current Iraqi War and the unavoidable controversy in our climate concerning George W. Bush's worth as President and leader, director Jonathan Demme's superb remake couldn't have come at a better time. This is one arresting film; at 135 minutes, it seems much shorter and not a moment is wasted.

The twisting plot, naturally and tautly evolving rather than a cheap ploy to bewilder the viewer, has an actual purpose and faithfully follows an exacting trajectory of events and epiphanies. As Marco risks his life to prove his suspicions are correct, the viewer is placed squarely beside him, discovering the specifics of the grisly cover-up at the same time that he does. It is nearly impossible to guess ahead about the what's and why's of the plot, a surefire sign of intelligently constructed filmmaking.

The cinematography by Demme regular Tak Fujimoto (2002's "Signs") becomes a character of its own. Using a bevy of startling close-ups and a tendency toward having the characters face the camera, the picture becomes a measured, jumpy study of unrelenting paranoia. Even in scenes of apparent normality, something is deliberately skewed in the way Fujimoto and music composer Rachel Portman (2003's "The Human Stain") handle their technical responsibilities, making it seem as if someone is right around the corner watching the characters. Meanwhile, the dreams and hallucinations that befall Marco are nervously bizarre in a horror-movie kind of way without being implausible nonsense, each one of them leading to clarity by the time all its cards have been dealt.

In his second stirring performance of the year (after "Man on Fire"), Denzel Washington is impeccably cast as Bennett Marco, a man who avoids the truth, chalking his dreams and hallucinations over to post-traumatic stress, until he can no longer deny what is really go on. Marco is imploding on the inside even as he is exploding outwardly, a tricky opposition that Washington effectively pulls off in spades. As Vice President candidate Raymond Shaw, who doesn't realize he is being controlled until it might be too late, Liev Schreiber (2001's "Kate and Leopold") brings an affecting and conflicted vulnerability to a part that, written wrong, could have become one-dimensional. The same goes for the invaluable Meryl Streep (2002's "Adaptation"), whose Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is one of the most vicious and ruthless screen characters of the year. Streep, in her usual phenomenal way, finds the depth and humanity in a woman with very little of the latter, digging underneath the skin of viewers with her every acute line delivery and facial expression. And as Rose, a giving acquaintance who befriends Marco, although not for obvious reasons, Kimberly Elise (2002's "John Q") is dazzling.

"The Manchurian Candidate" isn't some slow-paced poke through tired material. Although much of it is dialogue-driven and paying attention to the details are vital, every scene comes alive with an unrelenting pace and stylish expertise of the genre, working up a mixture of tension and brains that would do Alfred Hitchcock proud. The climax, set at a presidential victory party and involving an assassination that isn't the one most viewers might expect, is deliciously agonizing as it races past its natural stopping point, refusing to relieve the palpable disquiet of the moment until at its ultimate peak. When it comes, the reasoning behind one particular action is the sole development that could have used further illumination, but it doesn't hinder the gripping, thought-provoking results. "The Manchurian Candidate," a layered, ideal thriller of both ideas and aesthetic grandeur, is genuinely electrifying, a return to prime form for director Jonathan Demme. A second viewing is not only warranted, but fully welcome.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman