It took extraordinary courage for director Jonathan Demme to make the decision to remake the classic study of the Cold War considered by many to be among the greatest films of the sixties. However, Demme is known to possess just a tiny bit of courage in matters of cinema. |
Since winning the Academy Award for best director for his riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991) he has busied himself with powerful films that took a great deal of courage to make. Some have been great successes, some not, but each has been unique in its artistry. Following The Silence of the Lambs (1991) just the third film is history to sweep the Academy Awards winning best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best screenplay, Demme directedPhiladelphia(1993) the first mainstreamHollywoodfilm to deal with the AIDS crisis. Less about AIDS than discrimination, the film earned strong reviews and an Oscar for Tom Hanks’ performance as the dying young lawyer who takes on the legal system. Bruce Springsteen’s haunting ballad which opens the film won an Oscar for best original song as well as several Grammy’s for the rocker. Perhaps the greatest risk Demme took before The Manchurian Candidate (2004) was Beloved (1998) an adaptation of the Toni Morrison best seller starring Oprah Winfrey as a former slave who committed a terrifying crime to protect her children. Though critically reviled at the time of release, a few sharp-eyed critics (myself included) praised Demme for the manner in which he made the film, trusting his audiences to accept that the dead come back and ghosts walk the earth. To understand the film, you must accept those two things before you sit down to watch the picture. Though flawed, specifically through the performance of Winfrey, the picture holds a spell on its viewer long after the film is over. The images are strong and frightening, the performance 9Winfrey) accepted are superb, and Demme’s handling of the black experience authentic and honest.
With The Manchurian Candidate (2004) he updated the film to present day andManchuriathe country became a corporation with more than a passing of interest of who ended up in the White House as the country’s Vice President.
Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is haunted by dreams that take him back to his experiences during the Gulf War when he and his platoon was taken prisoner by a group of Iraqi soldiers. Though a young Sgt. Shaw (Live Schreiber) valiantly leads his men out of harms way receiving the Medal of Honor, there is something about the whole thing that has always alarmed Marco and comes to him in his dreams. He gets the feeling he was part of something evil and ugly and that perhaps the key to whole affair was Shaw. Now a candidate for the Vice Presidency, Shaw is enjoying a great political career guiding carefully by his overbearing mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep), who pulls the right strings to assure her son will end up in the White House. There is a hint that this hydra may have been responsible for the death of her husband and will stop at nothing to insure her son is a part of history.
Marco attempts to contact Shaw who is having the same nightmares and suspects that something terrible happened to him overseas but cannot quite put his finger on it. Eleanor understands exactly why Marco is trying to get to her son, and does everything in her power to prevent it.
The film works because the story is logical, topical and brilliantly acted on ever level.
We know corruption exists in the highest levels of government, how else does one explain George W. Bush as President of theUnited States?
Denzel Washington is compelling and powerful as Marco, creating a man haunted by dreams he believes might be true. Anguished and yet betrayed by his thoughts he knows he must get to somebody before he goes made, or worse before these nightmares manifest themselves and become real to him. One of our greatest actors, Washington gets under the skin of the character and his paranoia becomes our paranoia in an effective and chilling manner
Meryl Streep is chilling and brilliant as Eleanor, going further than Angela Lansbury did with the same role in the 1962 version. What are frightening about this woman are her intelligence and the manner in which she chooses to use it against her enemies. She knows people dislike her and exploits that for her own use, just as she exploits those closest to her for her own betterment. This is a chilling performance because of the obvious resemblance to former First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton who many believe may be the first woman Vice President of theUnited States. Ambitious, driven, and cruel without thought for the consequences, this is a frightening performance because we all know this woman. Streep has denied the fact she based the character onClinton, but always with a smile. The work recently earned the actress a nomination for a Golden Globe as best supporting actress, and an Oscar nomination seems likely.
As her son who slowly realizes he is involved in something dastardly and beyond his control, Live Schreiber is quite terrific portraying a smart man coming to realization that his heroics may have been fabricated and that he was a pawn in a vicious game of finance and power.
Political thrillers were quite something in the seventies with The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975) but died off through the eighties and nineties. The Manchurian Candidate is a ferocious reminder that compelling, nightmarish films can take place in the corridors of power. Wherever there is power there is corruption; what better place to start than Washington?
The film is presented in a crisp widescreen transfer, with audio commentaries from Demme and co-writerDanielPyne. In addition there are documentaries about the cast, the making of the film, five deleted scenes, and a very funny outtake set.
One of the best films of the year is also one of the finest DVD’s of the year.