An Electable 'Manchurian Candidate'
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page WE33
"THE MANCHURIAN Candidate" is a stylish hoot: entertainingly edgy and ludicrous all at once. Free yourself of those nagging needs for credibility, overlook (or celebrate) its clearly left-wing agenda, giggle over the operatic melodrama of the climactic scenes, and you could enjoy yourself. This is a between-the-lines good time.
Director Jonathan Demme, whose exacting hand gave "The Silence of the Lambs" its unforgettable chill, manages to overcome its narrative shortcomings with sheer directorial skill. It almost doesn't matter how hokey things get, it's too watchable to worry. There's something about the high-class paranoid thriller, whose heyday was in the 1970s with such classics as "Three Days of the Condor" and "The Parallax View," that is deeply satisfying. In a way, "Fahrenheit 9/11," with its direct implications of an ominous idiocy in America's back-slapping boardrooms, semiconsciously follows the same genre.
Not that the story components in "Manchurian" aren't carefully worked out -- or over. Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris clearly pored over John Frankenheimer's original 1962 movie, which starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and an unforgettable Angela Lansbury, and updated and retrofitted everything. What was a thriller set in the deepest, darkest paranoid waters of the Cold War has become a sort of post-Gulf War Halliburton-dunit, a movie about corporate evil, mind control and political maneuvering. It's an intriguing transmogrification which, ultimately, becomes too torturously labored to believe. But it sure draws you in for a while.
For more than a dozen years, Maj. Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) has been giving public motivational speeches that pay tribute to the actions of a certain Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) during the Gulf War. Bennett (then a captain) and Shaw survived a nighttime firefight in the Kuwaiti desert. Shaw received the Medal of Honor for saving his men, while Marco has become the storyteller. Funny thing is, he doesn't really remember what happened. He just tells the tale. And he tries to ignore his dreams, which paint a lurid picture of brainwashings and bizarre executions of American soldiers.
When the emotionally ravaged Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), a former member of Bennett's platoon, corners Bennett, an inconvenient truth starts to surface. Al's been suffering the same nightmarish images about that ill-fated night. And there's something fishy, too, about the similar phrases Bennett, Al and other survivors have used to retell the story.
Bennett is disturbed enough to seek out Raymond who, at this point, is a congressman touted as a vice presidential contender for the out-of-power party's White House candidate. (Raymond's party is never specifically identified, but it's clearly Democrat). Raymond is a mama's boy with a vengeance, the son of the icy, hawkish Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). Her agenda is clear: She wants her military hero of a son in the White House, and she has enough influence in the party (the same as her son's) to make it happen.
Bennett finds Raymond alternately welcoming and dismissive. He seems to be a soul in moral torment who resents his mother and yet does her bidding. What's going on?
When the sinister plan at the heart of this drama becomes clear, you have to wonder: Wasn't there a simpler way for the bad guys to achieve their objective? Surely no one would work this hard, not to mention indirectly and patiently, to be evil. And when the movie's subtle menace becomes a series of helter-skelter chasings and killings, you can either part with the movie or hop onto this runaway train.
Either way, you're likely to enjoy Washington, Schreiber and Streep, who stoke this ride with dead-on performances. (There's a nice turn, too, from Kimberly Elise as Bennett's helpmate.) Washington's a charismatic, traditional thriller hero, a man (let's roll out the tagline cliches) who gets pushed to his limit but who'll stop at nothing to get to the bottom of this. He gets the movie's prime punch line, too, when a potential political ally (Jon Voight) suggests Bennett is making claims that are rumors and conjectures.
"I started with nightmares," Bennett tells the senator. "Rumors and conjectures are a giant leap forward."
Schreiber, whose body temperature seems to be sub-zero in this role, makes a formidable force to reckon with. And speaking of freezing point, Streep (who reprises the role made legendary by Lansbury) is a disconcerting caricature combination of Vice President Cheney and Hillary Clinton, hellbent on getting her son into the Oval Office. You haven't seen camp until you watch her crunch the ice in her glass. Those could be human bones in that petite maw. With characters like these squaring off, and a climactic finale set on the main stage of a political convention, you can't help thinking: Bring it on.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (R, 130 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Denzel Washington as Maj. Bennett Marco and Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw in Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate."
(Ken Regan -- Paramount Pictures)