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Paramount Studios presents
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

"I remember what we did in Kuwait. I remember it perfectly. But I don't remember actually doing it."
- Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 20, 2004

Stars: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schrieber
Other Stars: Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Bruno Ganz, Simon McBurney
Director: Jonathan Demme

MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Run Time: 02h:09m:42s
Release Date: December 21, 2004
UPC: 097363368946
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- B+BA B-

DVD Review

Just because the Cold War is over it doesn't mean that political paranoia has gone out of style, and either version of The Manchurian Candidate wears the tin foil hat with the best of them. Jonathan Demme's recent remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 film (both of which were based on a novel by Richard Condon) reimagines a good portion of the story for a 21st-century context, but, perhaps because this is a movie of our time, the improbabilities and occasionally creaky plot machinations don't seem nearly as seamless and galvanizing as they do in the Kennedy-era original. Still, this is a well-made, engaging film with a great director and cast, and it's politically aware, too, without resorting to Fox News Channel- or Michael Moore-style name-calling.

In for Frank Sinatra is Denzel Washington, as Bennett Marco, Army officer and veteran of the first Gulf War; he's got bad dreams and he can't shake them, despite years of therapy and pharmacological intervention. You can give it a name—post-traumatic stress disorder, if you like—but that doesn't make the dreams go away, or make them seem any less real. He's tracked down by another soldier in his battalion (a fragile, scary Jeffrey Wright), who is more unhinged than Marco; the one of the band of brothers who seems to have risen above it all is Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), U.S. Congressman, scion of a political dynasty, and the prospective Vice Presidential nominee of his party. But what really happened in Kuwait to these men? Why are their memories of Shaw's heroics either oddly foggy, or recounted uncannily verbatim, from man to man?

Unraveling the pernicious forces at work, on Shaw particularly, is what the movie is about, and in the absence of rhetoric about the international Communist conspiracy, the evil empire becomes here Manchurian Global, an international consortium that seems part Halliburton, part Carlyle Group, all evil. They've got their hands in every conceivable cookie jar, and their reach may extend inside of people's heads—we're in the territory more often associated with those believing in the black helicopters of the U.N., though we're on the other side of the aisle, more or less.

Demme has always been a first-rate director of actors, and that's very much the case here. Nobody musters righteous indignation quite like Washington—he's the best at doing this on screen since Brando as Terry Molloy—and he's a more accomplished actor than Sinatra; he's asked to carry the mantle for most of the picture, and he does so with aplomb. It's the nature of the story, I suppose, but one of the disappointments of the movie is that Washington doesn't get any screen time with Meryl Streep, who plays Eleanor Shaw, a U.S. Senator and Raymond's mother; she's a dragon lady of sorts, the ultimate Machiavellian stage mother, and Streep is typically spectacular, channeling everyone on the political spectrum from Hillary Clinton to Karen Hughes. She may not blot out Angela Lansbury's performance in the same role, but here she's unencumbered by having merely to be the woman behind the man; you do not want to mess with her. Schreiber's role may be the most difficult one, for he's asked to humanize an automaton, essentially; he does at least as well as Lawrence Harvey did.

One of the pleasures of watching a Jonathan Demme movie is seeing great actors in smaller roles—Jon Voight is patrician and convincing in his brief screen time as a U.S. Senator trying to do the right thing—and of seeing the director's stable of regulars show up. They range from Ted Levine to Roger Corman, to Rockland County regulars like Bill Irwin and Tom Chapin. (Demme and I live in the same town, but shockingly, he hasn't come by the house to pal around.) This wouldn't be the right project to display it, but there seems to be little left of the whimsy of his early films, like Melvin and Howard or Something Wild, and I must say I miss that; I'd also like to see him bust out of doing remakes, after this one and The Truth About Charlie. So this may not be as good as some of his other work, or of this story in its first on-screen incarnation; it's still a solid piece of filmmaking, though, one that's both viscerally and intellectually engaging.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Demme and his longtime cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, favor very tight shots of their actors talking directly to the camera—these separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls, because if you don't have the chops to look right at us and speak the truth, we're going to know about it. It also means that the slightest imperfection or movement is magnified, and the occasional problems with the transfer are made that much more obvious. Still, it's a pretty solid job of it.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: One of the best audio mixes I've heard in a good long while—it's atmospheric and full, at times rich, frequently haunting. Demme's restrained, appropriate musical choices add to the overall auditory experience.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Without a Paddle, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Team America: World Police, The Stepford Wives
7 Deleted Scenes
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jonathan Demme and Daniel Pyne
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Not an overwhelming extras package, but some choice bits here nonetheless. Demme and one of the film's credited screenwriters, Daniel Pyne, sit for a commentary track, a self-proclaimed mutual admiration society. They discuss the film's prescience—pre-production was well underway before the war in Iraq, giving the movie an uncanny relevance—and they're very good especially at hashing out character details and background. The actors were invaluable here, they report; Streep's instincts especially are praised as extraordinary. Pyne in particular attends to the differences between this film and its predecessor, noting that the solitaire motif, so prominent in Frankenheimer's movie, is absent this time out.

The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate (14m:05s) is typical junkety stuff, with Demme, Pyne, Washington, Streep and Schreiber, and Tina Sinatra, Frank's daughter and a producer on this project. The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate (11m:54s) is a celebration of Streep, Washington and Schreiber, including praise from those in the first featurette along with Jon Voight and Roger Corman. A package of five deleted scenes (09m:34s) show work on a professional level, but no real gems here; Demme and Pyne provide commentary for this as well, with Demme offering an impromptu tour of Nyack, where he shot much of the picture. Streep in character sits for two television interviews (02m:39s), the second of which features Meryl trying to get her inquisitor, Al Franken, to laugh; Demme and Pyne provide commentary here as well. Liev Schreiber's intensity is very much on display in his screen test (02m:49s) with Streep. Finally, there's footage (10m:00s) of the film's political pundits—they include Roy Blount Jr., Sidney Lumet, Anna Deveare Smith and Fab 5 Freddy—talking about the general state of the nation; their voices were used as background chatter throughout the feature. Demme flies solo on the commentary on these; in truth, neither he nor his pundits have a whole lot to say here.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

This Manchurian Candidate ably answers the question that most remakes of beloved films cannot: Why? Even if you're unfamiliar with the Sinatra/Lansbury version and are simply drawn in by the star power of this one, you'll be entertained and engaged, whether you live in a red state or a blue one.

 


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