How far are you willing to go for the hardest job in the entire world?
One movie, a C+ remake of a 1962 classic, ruminated on that very idea. While the initial story was profoundly informed by a McCarthyist 1950s when the scariest word of the day was “communism,” a 21st century spin in the aftermath of 9/11 had a different word to fear: “terrorism.”
In 2004, director Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar for the 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs, turned out a star-studded remake of the 1962 political science-fiction film The Manchurian Candidate. Besides being a respectable work that’s just a little rough around the edges, its big-picture (and however unintentionally antiquated) ideas about ambition, leadership, and, most of all, secrets make it a worthwhile viewing in 2021. And it’s the movie you need to stream before it leaves Netflix on August 31.
The Manchurian Candidate sports a star-studded cast: Denzel Washington leads as Major Bennett Marco, a Gulf War veteran who commanded a U.S. Army unit during a harrowing raid. As Marco tells an audience of Boy Scouts, the brave but aloof Sgt. First Class Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) took on the enemy and led the survivors to safety. For his actions, Marco recommended Raymond the Medal of Honor.
Years later, Raymond Shaw is an up-and-comer in American politics, managed by his ambitious mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). The movie’s premise circles around a conspiracy in which the story Marco has told about Shaw may not be entirely true. (I’ll avoid spoilers even though this film is both 17 years old and the remake of a previous movie itself based on a book by Richard Condon, published 1959.)
The Manchurian Candidate is a paranoid thriller with a sci-fi bent. The film follows one man’s impossible search for the truth in the scary world of surveillance, politics-as-spectacle, and xenophobia.
Demme’s Manchurian Candidate is keenly aware of the power of narrative and how it shapes our behavior. The seemingly popular Raymond Shaw — whose actual partisan politics aren’t defined, if at all — and his story about courage under fire seems uncannily perfect, almost as if it were scripted.
Unfortunately, the film itself fails to see its own narrative shortcomings. Its plot, which is as structured as sand, and the floating camerawork by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto are all meant to conjure up the wispy feeling of a dream. The effect is a purposeful choice to mirror Marco’s own inability to dream. But this results in a movie that feels like the first draft of a project rather than the final cut. What’s more, the intentionally cartoonish and frequent onscreen graphics of cable TV news — meant to illustrate Marco’s own detachment from reality — only make us, the viewer, detached from any grounding necessary to make a story like this one work.
What makes The Manchurian Candidate very hard to vibe with now in 2021 are the lengths the story’s perpetrators go to to ensure Shaw’s candidacy. If the Trump years meant anything, it actually takes very little to make it to the Oval Office. Say a bunch of racist buzzwords, and you’ve basically got the Florida vote.
The idea of a shadowy Resident Evil laboratory engineering the perfect candidate is just a little preposterous when the worst candidate of all time managed to win in 2016. This is not to say movies should always be informed by the real world. One of my favorite political films is the 1998 satire Bulworth, in which Warren Beatty freestyle raps for two hours. But the problem with Manchurian ‘04 is that its science-fiction is simply at odds with political reality.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy. Streep is at her best as a powerful senator, clearly irked by her inability to break through the political glass ceiling that’s still present even today. Her incestuous obsession with Raymond, played by a calculated Schreiber (who is just 18 years Streep’s junior), reads more like evidence of selfish hubris than predatory behavior. Washington, meanwhile, proves he truly was the leading man of the mid-aughts, working like a chameleon to enter the mind and body of an unkempt veteran whose diet consists of instant noodles and glasses that are always at the tip of his nose.
The Manchurian Candidate is far from the best political thriller of the 2000s, let alone all time. (For a true classic, the 1962 film is also available on VOD.) But tinged by 9/11 paranoia and conspiracy, it’s a relic of the era with a cast of familiar faces. While its take on the power of narratives isn’t so powerful, the faces that appear on your TV are. As you might find, that’s probably enough.
The Manchurian Candidate is streaming on Netflix until August 31.