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The Manchurian Candidate (2004): Meryl Streep Is Saving Grace

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The Manchurian Candidate 2004 Meryl StreepThe Manchurian Candidate with Meryl Streep: Jonathan Demme’s unsatisfying 2004 remake features two inadequate leads and suffers from pacing issues, coming to life only when ambitious, politically savvy senator/mom Meryl Streep takes the reins.
  • The Manchurian Candidate (2004) review: In a relatively small but critical role as a power-hungry U.S. senator, 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 the U.S. government.
  • The Manchurian Candidate 2004 synopsis: Suffering from relentless nightmares, a Gulf War veteran (Denzel Washington) begins to wonder whether a former squad-mate and current U.S. vice-presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber) actually was the all-American hero he remembers.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) review: Meryl Streep is the saving grace in Jonathan Demme’s lackluster remake of John Frankenheimer’s classic political thriller

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Released during a presidential election year in the United States, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris’ The Manchurian Candidate reboot has kept the framework of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 big-screen classic while revamping various plot details to draw parallels between the storyline and current events. The results are, to put it kindly, mixed at best.

On the plus side, this paranoia-suffused political thriller is grounded on a premise – from George Axelrod’s 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 potentially totalitarian pitfalls, what may have seemed ludicrously farfetched around 1960 has now become far more plausible.

Lastly, two-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Sophie’s Choice, 1982) is in top form as a more humorous version of the monomaniacal character that earned Angela Lansbury her third and final Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.[1]

On the downside, The Manchurian Candidate 2004 is bogged down by two inadequate lead actors, irritating narrative absurdities (several also plagued the 1962 film), and, perhaps most problematic of all for a thriller, sluggish pacing.

The Manchurian Candidate 2004 plot: Sinister corporate forces

At first, The Manchurian Candidate 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 for saving Marco’s Gulf War (a.k.a. “The First Iraq War”) platoon during an ambush.

Marco’s nights, however, are a tad less mundane. A recurring nightmare takes him back to his platoon on the night of the ambush, but with one key difference: The attack is perpetrated not by Iraqi fighters but by nebulous, sinister forces.

In the meantime, through the wily manipulations of his mother, Virginia Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), the idealistic Raymond, now a U.S. Representative from New York, becomes the most likely contender for the vice presidency of the United States.

Upon learning of Raymond’s nomination, Marco, on the verge of shedding his last vestiges of sanity, stalks the candidate so as to uncover the truth about the ambush and its aftermath.

Throughout it all we wonder: What does a multinational private equity corporation named Manchuria Global (allegedly inspired by The Carlyle Group, based in Washington, D.C.) have to do with any – or all – of the goings-on?

The Manchurian Candidate 2004 Liev Schreiber Meryl StreepThe Manchurian Candidate 2004 with Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep: Senator Shaw and her congressman son, a vice-presidential contender, are seen as members of the perfect American family. Reality, as usual, is both more complex and more perverse.

Prestige talent not enough

As mentioned further up, one crucial The Manchurian Candidate 2004 shortcoming is the acting.

Even though Jonathan Demme’s thriller 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 (likely to bring to mind New York Senator Hillary Clinton[2]) most of those featured in the production are either ineffectual or wasted in unworthy roles.

Case in point: Best Actor Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001), who serves as the film’s emotional centerpiece (Frank Sinatra in the original).[3] Despite – or rather, because of – the actor’s obvious efforts, Washington is never wholly convincing as a psychologically battered man on the brink of insanity.

In an equally difficult – albeit radically different – role, Liev Schreiber (Laurence Harvey in the original) is just as inadequate. Any turmoil taking place 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 controversial German hit Downfall), Vera Farmiga (featured in the HBO historical drama Iron Jawed Angels), former child star Dean Stockwell (Oscar nominee for Married to the Mob, 1988), Jon Voight (Oscar winner for Coming Home, 1978), and Kimberly Elise (in the old Janet Leigh role, here reduced to an extended cameo) have little to nothing to do.

Anti-democratic contingent for the George W. Bush years

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 apparently having little interest in attenuating the lazier and/or more outlandish elements in the narrative.

For 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) cast & crew

Director: Jonathan Demme.

Screenplay: Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.
From George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay and Richard Condon’s 1959 novel.

Denzel Washington … Ben Marco
Meryl Streep … Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw
Liev Schreiber … Raymond Shaw
Jon Voight … Senator Thomas Jordan
Kimberly Elise … Rosie
Vera Farmiga … Jocelyne Jordan
Dean Stockwell … Mark Whiting
Bruno Ganz … Delp
Jeffrey Wright … Al Melvin
Zeljko Ivanek … Vaughn Utly
Anthony Mackie … Robert Baker
Ann Dowd … Congresswoman Becket
Simon McBurney … Atticus Noyle
Charles Napier … General Sloan
Ted Levine … Colonel Howard
Miguel Ferrer … Colonel Garret
Darrell Larson … FBI Agent Ramirez
Sidney Lumet … Political Pundit[4]
Roger Corman … Mr. Secretary[4]
Anna Deavere Smith … Political Pundit[4]
Al Franken … TV Commentator[4]

According to online sources, journalist E. Jean Carroll is seen in a bit part as a reporter. In 2018, Carroll accused then U.S. President Donald Trump of sexual assault (which allegedly took place in the mid-1990s); the following year, she sued him for defamation. In May 2023, she won $5 million in damages.

Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto.

Film Editing: Carol Littleton and Craig McKay.

Music: Rachel Portman.

Producers: Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Demme, and Ilona Herzberg.

Production Design: Kristi Zea.

Costume Design: Albert Wolsky.

Production Company: Clinica Estetico.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

Running Time: 130 min.

Country: United States.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004): Meryl Streep Is Saving Grace” notes

Angela Lansbury’s Oscar nominations

[1] Angela Lansbury had been previously shortlisted in the Oscars’ Best Supporting Actress category for George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) and Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

She lost to, respectively, Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart), Anne Revere (National Velvet), and, the third time around, to Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker).

Far from Hillary

[2] Meryl Streep has asserted that her performance as Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw was “so far from Hilary Clinton,” adding, “This isn’t paranoia, this is called misinformation. Disinformation, I guess you call it. It’s manipulating public opinion with a fake buzz.”

Streep, however, did affirm the Sen. Shaw was based on a public figure: “I think I’m doing a dead-on imitation of this person, but no one’s got it.”

Frank Sinatra’s daughter

[3] Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina Sinatra is one of the four individuals who received producer credit on The Manchurian Candidate 2004.

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.

Celebrity cameos

[4] Among those making cameo appearances in The Manchurian Candidate 2004 are:

  • 2005 Honorary Oscar recipient and five-time nominee Sidney Lumet (as Best Director: 12 Angry Men, 1957; Dog Day Afternoon, 1975; etc.).
  • Veteran B-movie producer and director Roger Corman (The Fast and the Furious, House of Usher) as the U.S. Secretary of State.
  • Comedian and future Democratic Minnesota Senator Al Franken as a reporter.
  • Actress Anna Deavere Smith (Philadelphia, The American President) as a political pundit.

The Manchurian Candidate awards & nominations

Mostly ignored during awards season, The Manchurian Candidate did receive a handful of nominations, including:

Somewhat surprisingly, Meryl Streep was bypassed at the Oscars.

Venice screening

The Manchurian Candidate was screened out of competition at the 2004 Venice Film Festival.

The Manchurian Candidate 2004 movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.

Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep The Manchurian Candidate movie images: Paramount Pictures.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004): Meryl Streep Is Saving Grace” last updated in December 2023.

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