- The Manchurian Candidate (2004) movie review: In a relatively small but crucial role, Meryl Streep is the one memorable element in Jonathan Demme’s slow-moving, mostly miscast, and ultimately unpersuasive exposé of the corrupt symbiosis between Corporate America and U.S. government officials.
The Manchurian Candidate 2004 movie review: Jonathan Demme’s remake disappoints, but Meryl Streep in top form
Screened at the Venice Film Festival, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris’ The Manchurian Candidate 2004 has kept the framework of John Frankenheimer’s big-screen classic while revamping various plot details to draw parallels between the storyline and current events. The results are mixed at best.
On the plus side, this paranoia-suffused political thriller is grounded on a premise – from George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay and Richard Condon’s original 1959 Cold War novel – that remains as engrossing as it was four decades ago. Besides, at least in terms of technological advancements and their inherent totalitarian pitfalls, what may have seemed all but impossible around 1960, has now become way less far-fetched.
Lastly, Meryl Streep is in top form as a more humorous version of the character that earned Angela Lansbury a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.
On the downside, The Manchurian Candidate 2004 suffers from two inadequate leads, irritating narrative absurdities (several also plagued the 1962 film), and, perhaps most problematic of all for a thriller, sluggish pacing.
Sinister entrepreneurial forces
The Manchurian Candidate 2004 follows U.S. Army Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) as he spends his days giving speeches about the heroic deeds of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), winner of the prestigious Medal of Honor after saving Marco’s Gulf War (a.k.a. “The First Iraq War”) platoon during an ambush.
Marco’s nights, however, are a bit less mundane. He suffers from a recurring nightmare, in which he finds himself back with his platoon on the night of the ambush. But in his dream, the attack is perpetrated not by Iraqi fighters but by much more sinister forces.
In the meantime, through the wily manipulations of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), the idealistic Raymond becomes the most-likely next vice president of the United States.
Upon learning of Raymond Shaw’s nomination, Marco, on the verge of losing the last vestiges of his sanity, stalks the candidate so as to uncover the whole truth about the ambush and its aftermath.
And what does a multinational private equity corporation named Manchuria Global (allegedly inspired by The Carlyle Group) have to do with any – or all – of it?
Prestige talent not enough
Even though The Manchurian Candidate 2004 boasts top-line talent in front of the camera, with the exception of Meryl Streep’s amusing/creepy turn as the power-hungry U.S. Senator Shaw most of those featured in the production are either misused or wasted in non-roles.
Best Actor Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001), the film’s emotional centerpiece (Frank Sinatra in the original), is a case in point. Despite – or perhaps because of – his obvious efforts, Washington is never wholly convincing as a psychologically battered man on the brink of insanity.
Liev Schreiber (Laurence Harvey in the original), in an equally difficult albeit radically different role, is just as inadequate. Any turmoil going on underneath Congressman Shaw’s placid countenance can be barely seen or sensed.
In the big-name supporting cast, Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler in this year’s German hit Downfall), Best Actor Oscar winner Jon Voight (Coming Home, 1978), Vera Farmiga, and Kimberly Elise (in the old Janet Leigh role, here reduced to an extended cameo) have little to nothing to do.
A Manchurian Candidate for the George W. Bush years
Jonathan Demme’s handling of the material is no help. The Best Director Oscar winner (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991) shows an immeasurable fondness for awkward close-ups while being incapable of making less bothersome the lazier and/or more outlandish elements in the narrative.
In fact, the weakest element in The Manchurian Candidate 2004 is its screenplay. If the allusions to the shady George W. Bush White House and its corporate cronies are both provocative and disturbing, an abundance of plot holes and a dishonest, overly tidy ending severely cripple the picture’s sense of real-life immediacy.
And once again, pacing is a serious issue. The Manchurian Candidate’s 130-minute running time feels like 130 minutes. Such ponderousness is something that a suspenseful thriller, whether or not it conveys a pressing political message, cannot afford.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme.
Screenplay: Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris.
From George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay and Richard Condon’s 1959 novel.
Cast: Denzel Washington. Meryl Streep. Liev Schreiber. Jon Voight. Jeffrey Wright. Kimberly Elise. Bruno Ganz. Ted Levine. Vera Farmiga. Miguel Ferrer. Dean Stockwell. Zeljko Ivanek. Ann Dowd. Simon McBurney. Darrell Larson. Anthony Mackie.
Cameos: Sidney Lumet. Anna Deavere Smith. Roger Corman. Al Franken.
“The Manchurian Candidate 2004 Movie Review” notes
Frank Sinatra’s daughter
From 1972 – when the original deal with distributor United Artists expired – to the late 1980s, Frank Sinatra held the distribution rights to the 1962 version.
“The Manchurian Candidate 2004” endnotes
Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep The Manchurian Candidate 2004 movie images: Paramount Pictures.
“The Manchurian Candidate 2004: Sterling Streep in Subpar Thriller” last updated in September 2021.