Riding the jockstrap of "Fahrenheit 9/11" comes another political thriller in the "Manchurian Candidate" with it's updated version of greedy geo-politics and international trickery - both just in time for this selection (er, election) year.
The "Manchurian Candidate" is a remake of the 1962 version that starred Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey replaced by Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, respectively. This time it's not the Cold War and the Communism of Korea that acts as the backdrop but the hot sands of 1991's Desert Storm (Persian Gulf War) from which the heart of the story is drawn. And as in the original version, we find the platoon of Army soldiers, led by Capt. Bennett Marco (Washington) lost for three days in the desert during which time they have become POWs.
Fast forward 13 years and we now find the survivors back home in the United States in varying degrees of mental states. Washington has become an agitated, No-Doz poppin, headjob, living in a cramped apartment filled with old newspapers and a taste for cup o' soup (a nice little clue that gets explained later in the film). In his spare time, he delivers speeches about his days in Kuwait; Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber)has become this sort of lethargic, almost catatonic but successful Congressman mama's boy who's up for Vice-President; and Corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright from Shaft, Boycott and Ali)has disintegrated into a mumbling, dirty, bum, lone nutter-type holed up in a room-by-the-hour, skidrow hotel.
All three, however, have one thing in common: "strange dreams" as Melvin confides in Marco after listening to him give a speech to a group of boy scouts one day.
What those dreams may become is the worrying splinter in Marco's thoughts as he begins to recognize that his life (or his mind) has not been his own since the capture in the desert. He also realizes that Shaw is what they call a "sleeper"--someone who's mind has been altered to do the bidding of a secret Controller/Master once he's given the trigger (activating) phrase. But much like Melvin, his problem is who to tell; or who to turn to as it becomes clear that he's been brainwashed (bamboozled and led astray, even) to become a pawn in a game of political chess. Whew, that's diabolical!
Granted, it's the resident evil of MC that evokes all the drama as Marco attempts to get those around him to believe his story. He races frantically against the sound of inevitability (said so eloquently by Agent Smith in the Matrix) to prevent a terrible end. Of course, no one believes him - that is, with the lone exception of a woman named Rosie (Kimberly Elise of Set It Off, John Q and Bait) who works in Marco's local grocery store as a cashier. She meets him on a train, befriends him and he confides in her. However, their alliance has its own problems as Marco struggles to separate truth from fiction; and friends from foes. Is Senator Eleanor Prentiss-Shaw (Meryl Streep) a better friend or is it Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight)? What is the significance of Manchurian Global (which seems reminiscent of today's notorious Carlyle Group)?
All of this is a nod to the great acting in the movie. Denzel is simply on automatic goodness. Meryl Streep is lechourously disturbing in a Mommie Dearest turn and Liev Schreiber pulls from the less is more school of acting in a very effective zombie-like portrayal. Director Jonathan (Silence of the Lambs fame) uses fisheye camera angles and washed out looks in the film to drive home the mind control point.
It's easy to see why the "Manchurian Candidate" is as unsettling now as it was when it debuted in 1962. At that time, the government's CIA was upset at the implications of mind control. Even Frank Sinatra used his connections and money to get the film pulled and didn't re-release it until 1988 (NOTE: Tina Sinatra is a producer on the film). He felt it too similarly aligned with JFK. Of course, it has since come out that the CIA has, indeed, been involved in mind control since the 50s. In fact, they helped pioneer mind control techniques during the advent of the Cold War to get information from hostile enemies (so they say) but have been accused of using the techniques on everybody from our own soldiers to ordinary housewives.
Interestingly, enough, another disturbing real-time similarity is the John Muhammad and John Malvo sniper case. In fact, Muhammad also fought in Desert Storm and insisted that he was brainwashed and implanted with a device. And in an even further, little quirk of art imitating life or life imitating art, both he and Malvo were captured after Sheriff Charles Moose read a statement that included a suspicious (trigger?) phrase: we have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose. The irony of ironies is that the situation was immediately connected by many to the original Manchurian Candidate. Now, here we are two years later with an updated version of the same movie.
The "Manchurian Candidate" is a timely, instigative re-make of a movie that will leave you disturbed and wondering about your own taken-for-granted freedoms and elected leaders. And that's worth paying the full price for a movie ticket to see it.