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The Manchurian Candidate

For those of us who only vaguely remember the original Manchurian Candidate, which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, pretending to be cult film buffs and fretting over whether or not the new release pales in comparison to the acknowledged genius of the original didn't seem like time well spent. We do remember liking John Frankenheimer's 1962 effort when we rented it so long ago but have to admit that we would be hard pressed to recall anything of the exact storyline other than that the Chinese were behind some political nefariousness and there was a cool scene where Sinatra keeps saying "Poor Poor Raymond" over and over. And we never read the book by Richard Condon so we didn't have to worry about it not living up to it's literary counterpart either. As a result of all this we were looking forward to the Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep version directed by Jonathan Demme

We weren't disappointed.

The 2004 edition of the film kicks off with a platoon in the first Gulf war and the ambush that ensues when they head into Iraq on a re-con mission. The firefight scenes are frenetically shot and frustrating to watch but you quickly learn that they were filmed that way to make it deliberately unclear as to what exactly is shaking out in the battle. As it turns out, the fact that we are left guessing as to whether any of it was real anyway, was all just a dream, or some sort of manufactured memory, is one of the central points of the film. In any event, we quickly fast forward to modern times where it seems that Denzel and some of the other surviving soldiers of the "lost company" are having trouble leading normal lives in the aftermath of their experiences. One of the soldiers that was involved of course is Raymond Shaw, the decorated hero of the ambush, who is now on the fast track to becoming Vice President of the United States at the behest of his mover and shaker (and Senator) mother Ellie played by an eerily Hillaryesque Streep (pictured). Another is Ben Marco played by Washington who appears a good career marine but has been soldiering on through a military life since the ordeal trying not to succumb to his dreams by staying awake all the time and ingesting prodigious amounts of noodle soup. When he runs across yet another member of the platoon who tells him that he has also been having nightmares, Denzel begins looking into things and slowly comes to realize that he has been a puppet at the hands of an unseen puppeteer. As he struggles to break free of the strings, he realizes that the forces that control him are very well connected and as he battles to overcome them against the backdrop of a presidential election involving his ex-platoon mate Shaw, Washington finds that he will be more involved in the course of US political history than he could have ever imagined.

As far as summer entertainment goes, this film is pretty good. It is well directed and the acting is solid with Washington's performance standing a cut above the other strong efforts as he plays Marco with a gritty, determined and damaged air. Demme's choices of odd and often intrusive camera angles, panning shots, and sudden cut aways keep your attention and add to the sort of surreal atmosphere that the characters are often facing. If you are not familiar with the plot, the story will keep you guessing until the end when it all sorts itself out in a way that doesn't disappoint. The eerie similarities between the current political state and the film's convention and campaigns are well timed of course and the rhetoric that pours from the candidates mouths in the movie is so well done that you wonder why the screenwriters don't move over and work in the political realm themselves. Let's hope that the fact that Liev Schreiber (left), who plays Raymond and looks quite a bit like John Edwards (right), is not evidence of further dirty tricks at the hands of the Republicans trying to use the film to suggest to swing state voters on some subliminal level that a vote for the Kerry ticket is a vote for further loss of personal freedoms and ultimately their own doom at the hands of some unseen Megacorp that actually will be running everything. Especially when, in fact, the opposite is more likely the case.

Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.