The Manchurian Candidate (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Old News

Can we please please please have a moratorium on Internet search engines figuring prominently in “thrillers”? I mean, come on, Google is a gift from the gods, and the other day when that virus made Google unusable, I felt like part of my brain had been cut off. But it simply is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “thrilling” to see a movie hero sitting at a computer typing. Not even when it’s Denzel Washington. It’s been said before and it will have to be said again, because this is the hip new way to get vital information across to a movie audience without having characters standing around saying things like “As you know, Bob, Manchurian Global is a totally evil corporation” so it’s sure to keep showing up in “thrillers,” but it has now officially Been Done To Death and is no longer cool.
It’s ironic, though, that this should be the film that finally pushes me over the great Googly edge, because this new Manchurian Candidate probably wouldn’t exist without the Internet and how it’s kept the tinfoil flame of conspiracy theories and accountable democracy alive over the last several years. But as with the recent remake of The Stepford Wives, you have to ask yourself, Why bother? Oh, screenwriters Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) had added some contemporary touches to George Axelrod’s original 1962 script (which was based of course on Richard Condon’s novel) — this one is all implants and stuff, very X-Files — and director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) presents it with, well, all sorts of hot Googling action. But the film’s overabundance of preposterous pop-corny-ness and simultaneous and surprising naivete defang it. It might have been something that could have been dubbed Fahrenheit 9/11: The Thriller! but instead you’re just relieved that it’s not downright horrible like Demme’s remake of Charade.

The earlier film, in case you were unaware, is about a Chinese Communist plot to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the White House by brainwashing an American soldier who’s on track for a hot political career. It was as much satire as thriller, poking much fun at a red-baiting, McCarthy-esque U.S. senator, and played up the absurdity of its premise, turning its farfetchedness around to make the film even scarier than it already was. It was a ridiculous Conspiracy Theory(TM) but a highly entertaining one.

None of the larger plot has been altered here, so if you’ve seen the original film, you know exactly who all the bad guys will turn out to be and even how all the mess gets swept up in the end, and so the great diversions you might find here are confined to seeing what Demme et al will do with the details. The enemy is no longer communism — it’s just not a sexy threat these days — but corporations run amuck. Manchurian Global, a “private equities firm,” is made up of former presidents and other ruthless power-hungry types, runs private armies-for-hire, and probably doesn’t pay any taxes anywhere. So, not really all that different from The Carlyle Group or Haliburton or KBR, right? I mean, when the movie goes all booga-booga-booga and wants to scare us by revealing that Manchurian Global is looking to acquire the “first privately owned vice president of the United States,” all you can think is, Well, no, the second, surely — hello, Dick Cheney? It’s like trying to frighten people with a warning that the dam is going the break when we’re already standing knee-deep in water.

On a movie-movie level, there’s plenty of good cheesy fun, to be sure. Liev Schreiber (The Sum of All Fears, Kate & Leopold), as the Kennedy-esque Harvard-grad scion of billionaire politicos — and the brainwashed Gulf War vet/vice-presidential candidate — gets to say totally adorable and charmingly naive things like “Democracy is not negotiable.” Isn’t that cute? Meryl Streep (The Hours, Adaptation), as his power-grabbing senator mom, is creepy creepy creepy while chewing scenery as a woman who seems to be looking to her son to replace her dead-senator husband on more than just the political stage — not that Liev isn’t completely lickable, but eww, she’s his mother! Denzel Washington (Man on Fire, Out of Time), as the VP-to-be’s former commanding officer (who was also brainwashed), gets to Google things and look fabulous! in his medals-shiny army uniform.

But you just wish this had been as awesomely terrifying as it wants to be. The flashbacky brainwashing scenes are horrifying — Demme plays them with a sickening calmness that mirrors the unthinking awfulness of what the soldiers are ordered to do as part of their indoctrination. Both Washington and Schreiber have the chops to portray men trying to maintain cool facades while they’re crumbling on the inside, and their final scene, even though they’re separated by a wide distance, unites them in a cool frisson of resignation through the smallest and most effective of actorly motions — slightly narrowed glances, resolutely set jaws — that you wish they’d had the chance to do stuff like that more often throughout the film. There’s all sorts of scarily intense actors scattered through the cast — Ted Levine, Dean Stockwell, Miguel Ferrer, Zeljko Ivanek — but they have no opportunities to shine.

Mostly, though, it’s the odd tepidness of The Manchurian Candidate that sinks it. For all its supposedly hot-button pertinence, it feels like yesterday’s news, taking a real and ongoing danger — the selling of the American democracy to the highest bidder — and reducing it to nothing more than Hollywood flim-flam.

share and enjoy