The Manchurian Candidate Review
Remakes are always things that are met with a certain amount of critical disdain, not least because for some reason people only want to remake good movies, rather than taking a promising concept that turned out to be a disappointment. The Manchurian Candidate is widely regarded as an excellent movie, but its central concept of Communist paranoia is more than a little dated, and with the cold war long over it’s not a movie that could be remade without changing a lot of the details. Jonathan Demme has crafted a movie with a very different terror behind it, recasting America’s biggest threat from Communism, to capitalism.
Raymond Shaw (Liev Shcrieber) is an all-American guy, both his parents served in the senate, he enlisted in the Army to fight in the Gulf War, and even managed to pick up a Medal of Honor while he was there. Now he’s pushing for his party’s nomination to run for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) was Shaw’s commanding officer in Kuwait, and the man who recommended him for that Medal of Honor, after an ambush almost overwhelmed their unit and Shaw not only fought them off single handed, but then also led his badly injured unit across the desert for three days to safety. Now Marco spends his days touring schools, talking to kids about potential careers in the Army, using Shaw as a shining example they can all aspire to be. Trouble is, Marco isn’t entirely convinced that Shaw is the soldier he’s been describing all these years. Sure, when he stands up in front of that audience he remembers every minute of those three days, with Shaw valiantly guiding their “Lost Platoon” but when he sleeps, his dreams tell him a different story, and after a decade of his subconscious and conscious minds telling him different stories about those days, he’s having trouble figuring out the truth. Of course the Army dismisses his concerns, his psych evaluations assuring him he needs to take his meds and trust what he remembers, not what his nightmares are telling him. But when one of Marco’s old platoon turns up and tells him he’s been having the same dreams, Marco stops believing anything he actually remembers about those three days.
I must admit, I hadn’t seen either the original version of the film, nor the trailer for the movie (which after watching the latter after the film I can say was certainly a blessing) so I went into The Manchurian Candidate completely cold. Even the sleeve gives nothing away - literally nothing - maybe because it was the Canadian version, but the sleeve contains nothing but the special features listing in 2 languages, not a word about the plot of the movie. It’s clearly a film that thrives on the mystery, because it spends a significant proportion of its time trying to confuse the hell out of you, and giving away as few important details as possible. That puts a pretty heavy burden on Washington, we’re as confused as his character is, so he has to work pretty hard to convince us there really is a reason to be, if his performance couldn’t attract empathy from the viewer the film would be dead in the water, with a mass of confused viewers drowning around it like the Titanic just went down. Luckily Washington is really rather good, in an uncharacteristic role for him. Major Ben Marco isn’t the strong lead we’re used to seeing Washington in, he’s not in command of much, certainly not his faculties, and he’s well aware his mind is being torn apart at the seams, while he’s left desperately trying to hold onto his last thread of sanity. And he’s not alone in putting in a good performance, with Demme pulling great turns from both Schrieber and Meryl Streep (as Raymond’s disturbingly attentive mother) who somehow manage to convince even when any sensible nature of the plot is crumbling around them.
Sadly the plotting is where The Manchurian Candidate really falls down, it’s central premise of mind-control is intriguing, and tying that into a political arena - especially the way the film is less than subtly woven around current American political events - also engages. Replacing the Communist threat are big businesses with their monetary agendas, manipulating an election for their own gain with no care for the American people. Streep’s senator gives a great speech as she tries to convince the party to nominate her son, about the state of America today. She paints it as a stupid country in the grip of fear, needing a man who will take charge and get things done, regardless of whether or not they’re the right things to do, they don’t want to think about that, If the guy in charge says it’s right, then it must be, a country desperate for a dictatorship with the illusion of choice. It’s a scary thought, while I have no doubt there are politicians that think that way, could the American people really be so easily led? But the points raised in the films first act fall by the wayside, as well thought out character motivations make way for more and more complicated and ridiculous conspiracy theories. But even conspiracy theories you can live with if the movie draws you into them well enough, but sadly The Manchurian Candidate has an ever increasingly ridiculous premise, and the further it pushes it, the more holes appear in its web. If you could manage to not think about it The Manchurian Candidate would probably be an excellent movie, sadly though it pushes you to think, and when you can complain about that you know something is wrong with a thriller, and you’ll be picking new holes in this one for a long time after the credits roll.
The Manchurian Candidate reaches DVD in an anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio, and a very sharp transfer. The visuals during the desert scenes are often sun-bleached and grainy, but this is clearly a stylistic choice and the rest of the film looks rather normal by comparison, but there aren’t any unsightly defects to trouble your viewing pleasure.
The film is presented with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is actually very active, and at times surprisingly effective. The majority of the film features a reasonably subdued track, with little more than ambient noise making up the majority of the soundstage. That, however, is just lulling you into a false sense of security because this is a track that likes to surprise. The best moments are within Ben Marco’s flashbacks, his fractured memories giving us not only some very odd visuals but some incredibly aggressive sound effects too, which do their very best to put you on edge.
Commentary from Director Jonathan Demme and Co-Writer Daniel Pyne
Demme and Pyne sit down for a commentary track - and certainly have a lot to say - this isn’t a track that suffers from a lot of silences, though their voices have a slightly dreary tone that makes it somewhat hard to listen to. It is rather worth the effort though, as they bring up quite a few interesting points. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how long it takes for a movie to go from an idea in a writers head, to the big screen, especially when it arrives and seems so pertinent to modern events. Shooting was actually completed on this before the US invaded Iraq, and long before people were talking about Bush’s election campaign, so almost frightening to see how much of the campaign mirrors Bush’s actual re-election. The commentary is also worth a listen if you haven’t seen the original movie, as Pyne takes a lot of time to talk about the differences between the two, where he didn’t want to reproduce the first movie, and where he did want to remain faithful.
The Enemy Within: Inside the Manchurian Candidate
This 15 minute featurette takes a look at the movie, covering the major differences between the original and the remake and the broad strokes of the plot. The bulk of the comment comes from the director and writer, and they’re both clearly pleased with the film they created but there is something Demme admits overshadows the film, as strong as its ideas of corruption in the White House at the hands of big business are, they just can’t compete with the reality of the Bush administration.
The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate
Hold on tight, there’s going to be an ass-kissing. Admittedly Demme has assembled an impressive cast for the film, with even minor roles filled by notable actors, but there’s little to this piece other than famous people telling us how talented other famous people are, and how lucky they all are to be working together. Those looking for any insight into the movie should look elsewhere.
Deleted and Extended Scenes
Five scenes make it onto this disc, with optional commentary from Jonathan Demme and Daniel Pyne. The first is an extended flashback to Marco’s company getting ambushed, and it’s a shame this scene was cut down as it’s really the only time we see the way Marco used to be - as a really confident man. The second is also a shame to use, as it contains a nice performance from Washington, but it would have tipped the movie’s hand a little too early so it was wise to remove it, and the same goes for the rest of the scenes present here. Sadly the commentators don’t talk much, and do mention other scenes that didn’t make it into the film, or onto the disc.
Liev Schrieber’s Screen-Test
This is something you don’t get to see on every release, and it’s a welcome addition. Even though the likes of Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep don’t have to audition that often, even recognisable Hollywood faces have to sometimes, and Liev isn’t A-List yet, so here we’re presented with his original screen-test, acting opposite Meryl Streep, It only lasts a couple of minutes, and includes some dialogue that didn’t make it into the final film, but it’s still an interesting part of moviemaking that’s often overlooked. Demme does mention on the main commentary that he ended up screen testing five actors for the role, though calls it ‘indiscreet’ to mention their names, which is a pity as it would have been great to see the five screen tests lined up next to each other, but I suppose I wouldn’t want my failed job interviews to be shown to the world either.
Political Pundits: with Optional Driector’s Commentary
Another unusual feature here, before shooting began Demme pulled together a group of people - including director Sidney Lumet and Fab 5 Freddy - to discuss the state of America today. Snippets from their discussions were used throughout the film, in radio broadcasts, to ground the movie in a realistic political arena. Here we get to see ten minutes of those discussions, which makes a very interesting adition to the features, but the commentary is pointless, acting only as a brief introduction to provide context.
The disc also carries trailers for Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Without A Paddle, Sky captain and the World of Tomorrow, Team America World Police and The Stepford Wives, as well as the less than subtle trailer for the main feature.
The film is an entertaining ride with some great ideas and some excellent performances, sadly though it is let down by a plot that falls to pieces under scrutiny, making the film an unfortunate disappointment. The DVD is technically well presented, but the extras are a mixed bag, too often falling into the realm of standard features, rolled out to bulk out a DVD listing without much care for their quality. Though there are some things here worth your time, ultimately the disc, like the movie, doesn’t live up to its potential.