The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris
Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber


The Manchurian Candidate

Do you believe it's possible that major American corporations would want to have control over the vice president of the country? Like, say, oh, Enron or Halliburton, just to pick two at random? No, of course not. That could never happen here; it's just something for the movies. Like the new Jonathan Demme film "The Manchurian Candidate."

"The Manchurian Candidate," which by the way is not a simple remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 thriller but a variation on its theme, is set in both 1991 - the first Gulf war - and the present. Captain (now major) Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) was the captain of a unit ambushed by Iraqi forces. Two of his men died, he was knocked unconscious, and his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) saved the remaining men and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. But something is a little awry about all of it, because the survivors have strange dreams of a different reality, and when they speak of the episode they all use exactly the same words. Marco is troubled enough by the mystery to try and unravel it.

Meanwhile, young Shaw, now a New York congressman, is being groomed for his party's Vice-Presidential nomination by his monstrously controlling mother, a Senator from New York, Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). How the two stories play out and come together, and how a major conspiracy to control the country is ferreted out and challenged, is the plot of the film.

We can recall Demme's magnificent work in "The Silence of the Lambs," though his most recent films ("Beloved" and "The Truth About Charlie") have been less than satisfying. Here he encourages Washington to show the character's vulnerability and confusion as he picks his way through the morass toward the truth, and Washington, probably the most attractive actor in films today, comes through with a thoughtful and moving performance. At the same time he lets Streep go far over the top as the stage mother from hell, to a point where she loses any believability. Much of the fault lies with the writers, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, who have written dialogue but not believability into her character. She's Lady Macbeth without the poetry. Schreiber's character too is underwritten; he's a face without a soul, a puppet without personality. It can be argued that that's exactly what he is intended to be, but it makes him a very dull boy indeed.

So the film is half a success and half a failure, with the main culprit being its reliance on a mechanical - or I should say electronic - device that is inherently unbelievable but on which the plot turns.