Movie Reviews
12:10 pm
Mon July 19, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate

One of the best American films of the year and the best thriller/political non-documentary.

Allegory is alive and well. If it must be a story with multiple levels of meaning, then Jonathan Demme's ("Silence of the Lambs") "The Manchurian Candidate" (Remade from the 1962 John Frankenheimer version) is a classic example. First level is the story itself of soldiers around the time of Desert Storm brainwashed to perform deeds that ultimately aim at the president of the U.S.

Another level is the hypnotic rhetoric of war making a nation of slaves to the mantra of their own parties' political agendas. Additionally is the obvious level of corporate corruption behind the brainwashing where the company Manchurian Global is a veiled allusion to today's politically tied conglomerates. Add to the levels a charismatic but vulnerable vice presidential candidate. Finally, the JFK assassination hangs over all presidents as a first act for the terrorist threat that now infuses American life after 9/11.

"Manchurian Candidate" is great filmmaking even without connecting the allegorical dots. Denzel Washington as the officer who led the group of hypnotized soldiers is weak and strong and tormented by the same dreams they have about a contrived medal-of- honor incident. Liev Schreiber as the programmed congressman and VP candidate is cool, charismatic, and manipulated. By whom? After the Manchurian company comes his incest-leaning senator mom, played with delight by Meryl Streep, just under the scenery-chewing threshold as a Hillary-Clinton power broker not afraid to off a colleague who doesn't share her ideology.

Much can be made about the difference between the two film versions. The original seems to have less a political base and more a treatment of cold-war operations with a dose of mid-century interest in Freud. By contrast this new version is heavily American political and geopolitical with Gulf-War syndrome somewhere in the background.

In the end, this version needs no comparison with its ancestor to be one of the best American films of the year and the best thriller/political non-documentary. It does correspond to Karl Shapiro's description of America as the "only society that ever raised gangersterism to the status of myth, and murder to the status of tragedy or politics."