On Second Thought: “The Manchurian Candidate (2004)”

Every four years in the U.S., there’s this little thing called and election. It’s whatever it is in any given year, but this year, it’s different. It’s more important than ever. So, to kind of keep with that theme, throwing out a holiday themed non-holiday film seems appropriate. What can go wrong with this? Oh, it’s a remake? Well, shit. Who doesn’t like a surprise from time to time?

The Paramount Pictures film “The Manchurian Candidate”, is an engaging thriller that actually does wonders with its source material and brings something fresh to a classic story.

This political thriller stars Denzel Washington (upcoming “Fences”, “The Magnificent Seven (2016)”), Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”, “Suffragette”), Live Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”, “The 5th Wave”), Jon Voight (upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to find Them”, “Ray Donovan”), Kimberly Elise (upcoming “Almost Christmas”, “Hit the Floor”), Jeffrey Wright (upcoming episodes “Westworld (2016 TV series)”, “BoJack Horseman”), Ted Levine (upcoming “Bleed for This”, “Swing State”), Bruno Ganz (“Heidi”, “The Counselor”), Miguel Ferrer (upcoming episode “NCIS: Los Angeles”, “Adventure Time”), Dean Stockwell (“Entertainment”, “NCIS: New Orleans”), and Jude Ciccolella (“NCIS: New Orleans”, “Beautiful & Twisted”).

The film was directed by Jonathan Demme (“Ricki and the Flash”, “The Killing”) and written by Daniel Pyne (“Alcatraz”, “Fracture”) and Dean Georgaris (“Tristan + Isolde”, “Paycheck”). It is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Condon.

The film originally opened on July 30, 2004. The film would go on to be nominated for one Golden Globe Award, one BAFTA Award, and three Saturn Awards among a few other nominations and one win.

It’s Election Day here in the wonderful United States, where we pretty much hold the future of the world in our hands. With only a few options, one of which looks vastly better than the others, even if, yes, things could go somewhat south under a Hillary Clinton presidency (I’m not that naïve), it’s the perfect time to celebrate more than just the fact that I have an actual voice and it matters, thus it should be used. While this may not be an official holiday, where banks and post office’s close, it may as well be one. Because of this, I’m thinking an election themed film is in order. At first I wasn’t sure what to choose. The one film I would’ve done has already been written about. “Election”, starring Reese Witherspoon. Good film, and yes, you should watch it. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to watch this film, and I jumped at the opportunity! It just fell into my lap. How could I say no? So, without further ado, my thoughts on this political thriller, which, even as a remake, surprised me in so many ways.

It’s a political thriller, and almost a psychological thriller, which is tough to have individually, so to even pull off this blend decently is no small feat. Demme and the writers certainly knew what they were looking for and delivered. It’s a film about power. It’s also a quest for the truth as much as what is real. So many times through out this film, which I’m surprised by even now, it wasn’t always clear what could be believed. Washington’s character may not have been coming as close to losing his grip on reality, like Nina Sayers, but there were plenty of moments where that certainly seemed to be what was happening. He was just crazy. Delusional. Too traumatized form his time in the Gulf War. The handling of this, which is where I believe this film takes on a bit of a psychological bent, could’ve gone really badly. I liked this enough, but I can also see how other viewers might take issue with this. It wasn’t anything too deep. On the flip side, it didn’t really need to be. At the film’s core, it wasn’t about some deep and meaningful exploration of a persons mental state. It was about a conspiracy, and who would benefit from it, and why.

But before you could fully realize it was some vast conspiracy, it all had to start as a mystery. It’s constant. It unspools slowly, but not too slowly. This is where I was able to get into the film, and that, I believe, is crucial to this film working out as well as it did. Washington stumbles upon this, but he’s been dreaming and remembering things, and none of it makes clear sense. So, he does what any reasonable person would probably do; he investigates. It not only is a good way to lure the audience deeper and deeper, but a pretty decent way to explore these characters. Helping the overall mystery, which I definitely liked, as I don’t feel there were any sacrifices to the story or constant feeling that maybe Washington was just crazy, is the pacing. The pacing was vastly improved from the original film, but some of that may be what was viewed as a good approach in films at that time. Sure it may have its slower moments, but those were usually filled with some kind of attempt at character insight. This consistent pace certainly allowed for this film to go, go, go, and keep you interested. You didn’t have time to lose focus.

An additional upside to the quick pacing and mystery, is the fact that I could be surprised. I was genuinely surprised. I think most of that has to do with the fact that it’s been some time since I last saw this film, and have simply forgotten a lot of little and key details. Mind you, as is sometimes the case, this was immensely helpful. I ultimately came away loving this film and appreciating all that had been done. It was quite original, given its remake status. But even more important, I just got lost in it. There was so much going on, but not too much or anything that was distracting (in a negative way) and it just gripped me even more.

I wanted to avoid this bit, but I feel it’s necessary, especially when speaking on how this film succeeds. It’s a remake, for those of you who hadn’t picked up on that, as well as an adaptation of a book. With the original film having such a big legacy, and remakes sucking the majority of the time, there needed to be something to get you in. That’s what happens. The general skeleton of the original story is there, but it brings in some other elements that seem more sinister than in the original, at least as far as I can recall. One crucial bit is the time period this came out in. If you remember what that particular political climate was like, and even today’s, you’ll see how this film becomes a bit scarier. Manchurian Global. That’s the name of this company as well as the way this film is able to keep its name and not look foolish. This move is actually quite brilliant, so hats off to the writers. But I look a bit further than just that change, which makes even more sense when you look at the scary implications. Manchurian Global is a powerful equity firm and clearly has a lot of influence. Well, like some people like to talk about, then and now, what if some kind of corporate interest has too much power? What if there’s something unfair going on? This is what happens. Now, does that mean it’s every real world entity or group, if any? No, but now having something tangible, and the vast reaches of its powers and the lengths gone too, to achieve some goal, it’s almost like its no longer mere speculation. There’s something sinister going on. This move certainly reminds me of the way other films of the past used the fears of that time, and scared audiences. Now they had something new to fear.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t properly mention the actors or their respective characters. Seeing as this has a hefty legacy to live up to, in some ways, it comes with some automatic comparisons. Fortunately, I can’t fully recall each character in the original film, nor specifically Angela Landsbury, so I can’t really compare them, even if I wanted to. That being said, the characters in this film stand out on their own. They are their own. You don’t have to have seen the original film and/or heard anything about it, good or bad, to be able to find enough to like or hate about a given character. There are certainly plenty of reasons to like or hate any given character, and this film is better off because of this. I found, which could just be me, that this film, through its dynamic characters and powerful performances from highly talented people, was able to truly stand on its own and actually give a new generation of viewers, even those that had already seen the original film, a worthy follow up. That is a statement I seldom utter, let alone think.

While each actor brought their best, it almost goes without saying that some stood out more. Streep being the most obvious person, but not simply because she’s Streep. No, Streep just had a memorable character. She’s ruthless, cunning, and overall is a power hungry political animal. Add to that, she’s a mother. She’s fierce, which sounds idiotic to say, but really sums her up. I was just amazed at what I was seeing. When she first comes on screen, the whole scene is breathtaking. Her delivery, poise, and type of character are on full display. There’s no doubt in understanding who she is. And, interestingly, you just get the chance to see her grow and grow more vicious, which is also fun to watch, as the film goes on, and it’s never off putting. I believe she’s like some sort of guilty pleasure. But, it also speaks to how the life her character has, is almost like a passionate speech. You believed every word, no matter what polls or pundits might say. Honestly, no offense to Washington, but she’s the best thing about this film.

Washington and Schreiber. Great too. Washington brings nuance, whereas, even with a good performance, Schreiber doesn’t really bring much to the character. He’s a prop, through and through. That fault pretty much lies with the character. No matter who played Raymond Prentiss Shaw, he’d be nothing more than a puppet. Granted, that’s kind of the general point this film’s making too, which isn’t at all veiled. Washington, while he can’t stand up to Streep, just gives you that sympathetic and determined character. With so much not making sense, and he just wanting to live a relatively normal life, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from, why this is important to him. I like this performance, but he’s also another type of pawn, and at some point in the story, humanizing him becomes less important. It’s all about the endgame. What is that? Who will win? Very much like this current election, which the United States is, at the time of this writing, currently wrapping up; for better or worse.

Some film’s, like political campaigns, can be downright surprising. You may expect it to go one way, but it doesn’t, and only occasionally that’s a good thing. All your hopes and expectations may have been for nothing. Where this film is concerned most, is with its remake status. It’s a remake! One I genuinely enjoy, and while not as stellar as the original (how could it be?), it came pretty damn close to some kind of perfection. It’s got everything a film should have, but so many don’t. For a remake, it does a lot to stand on its own, and that’s its saving grace. This film may be 12 years old, and many other remakes have come and gone, with most being downright terrible, I’ll gladly accept this one. It somehow energized me in a way most film’s can’t, particularly political films. Here’s hoping another thriller with dynamic character’s comes out soon, and can show what a well made (through and through) political thriller can do. I’m looking at you “Miss Sloane”.

And with that, I’m off to find my amazing wine glass and as much wine as I can. I desperately need to catch up with my drinking. Only copious amounts of wine will do the trick, so wish me luck!

Happy (maybe?) Election Day!! May the world still be functioning come tomorrow morning.


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