Movie Review

 

Movie Review

The Manchurian Candidate

Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Director: Jonathan Demme
Principals: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep
Rating: R for violence and some language

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- “Cash is king” – remember that line. It doesn’t matter that it comes late in The Manchurian Candidate. What matters is that greed is the fuel driving director Jonathan Demme’s edgy and gripping update of the John Frankenheimer 1962 Cold War classic. Mixed with that fuel are healthy doses of fear and patriotism taken to a darkest extreme.

Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is plagued by post-traumatic stress syndrome and haunted by dreams about what really happened to him during the Gulf War. Copyright © 2004 Paramount Pictures
The original film showed us an America knee-deep in the Red Scare of the Cold War, and it told the story of communists infiltrating the White House by brainwashing a presidential assassin. The new Candidate is charged with a contemporary urgency, replacing communists with terrorists as our objects of national dread, and it’s the candidate himself who is brainwashed. Throughout the film, TV newscasts of terrorist threats and U.S. military actions around the globe drone in the background, heightening a sense of uneasiness.

The film revolves around Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a Gulf War veteran and Sgt. Raymond Shaw, his subordinate who received a medal of honor for supposedly saving Marco’s team of rangers during an ambush. Ten years later, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Marco is plagued by post-traumatic stress syndrome and haunted by dreams about what really happened in the desert. Shaw is riding his war hero fame into the White House as a vice presidential candidate, cheered on by his mother (Meryl Streep), a powerful senator from Virginia. 

Sgt. Raymond Shaw is riding his war hero fame into the White House as a vice presidential candidate, cheered on by his mother, a powerful senator from Virginia. Copyright © 2004 Paramount Pictures
As the election approaches, we descend into an ever-darkening rabbit-hole where candidates are pre-approved by the multi-national corporation, Manchurian Global, and nothing and no one is beyond the reach of those who want to swing the election. The brainwashers are now rogue scientists on Manchurian’s payroll, and the real surprise is how many have been brainwashed and why. Marco slips into paranoia, while Shaw wrestles against a moral quicksand. Shaw senses deep in his soul that he is somehow, against his will, serving some evil purpose, but he is unable to recognize the conspirators who drive him. Marco, on the other hand, sees conspirators behind every bush, but he is unsure of their intent or which side they’re on.
 
Witty enough at times to be called a black comedy, Candidate refuses to take political sides, opting instead to skewer contemporary big-money politics in general. The film incorporates themes from both sides of the political fence, from the Haliburton-like Manchurian Global to the Kerry-esque war hero Shaw. Most chilling is Streep, whose ultra-patriotic senator personifies the phrase, the end justifies the means. She is willing to risk everything and sacrifice anyone to achieve her goals of making her son president and protecting the United States. The irony in her contradicting goals is highlighted by Wyclef Jean‘s cleverly retooled version of the Creedence Clearwater Revival protest song "Fortunate Son," which appears on the film’s soundtrack. Shaw’s campaign slogan of “Secure Tomorrow” ultimately promises the opposite – a tomorrow where fear is used to control the minds of the people, and political office is nothing more than an extension of the corporate boardroom.

The film incorporates themes from both sides of the political fence, from the Haliburton-like Manchurian Global to the Kerry-esque war hero Shaw (Denzel Washington). Copyright © 2004 Paramount Pictures
This is heady stuff in an election year – particularly this one. But this film is no Fahrenheit 9/11.  Its target is not a specific administration but rather the eternal entanglement of money and power. Which came first, money or power? And which was the first to seduce a good person in public office into abusing that office. A historian might answer that question, but one thing is certain, once money and power lock eyes, it is the beginning of a life-long romance. The Bible is rife with warnings about judges and other officials who yield to bribes. And even today, it’s sobering to note that many large corporations donate equally to candidates from both major parties. Could it be that they, like the fictitious Manchurian Global, don’t really care who wins?  

While taking a jaundiced view of the predatory nature of high-stakes politics, the film is surprisingly optimistic about the ability of individuals to reclaim their destiny and stand up to abusive power. Neither Marco nor Shaw understands fully what’s happening to them or how their destinies will intersect, but they draw upon their deep-rooted trust of one another – born of combat – and are willing to follow their quest for the truth no matter where it leads. It’s almost certain that their choices will lead to personal sacrifice, but their determination to fight for what’s right adds a final encouraging note to the film. For that, this Candidate gets my vote of approval.

Gregg Tubbs is a free-lance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.



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