Review: “The Manchurian Candidate”

How do you remake what many consider to be the greatest political thriller ever made? Simple, you cleverly emulate rather than try to surpass. Much like say last year’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, this is a film which whilst not in the league of its originator, nevertheless stands strongly on its own merits. Its a smart, slickly updated and superbly executed reinvention of what is simply a great story that’s just as relevant today as the day it was written, whilst it pays homage and includes nice touches to honour the Frankenheimer original classic.

That 1962 flick even today retains an awesome power. Watching it only a year ago for the first time I was in awe of the film. Admittedly some of the Korean brainwashing scenes and Frank Sinatra’s over the top bits feel a little awkward, but the sheer power of other scenes more than make up for the tiny smudges and imperfections that 40 years of imitators have dulled the surface with. From the cliffhanger finale and cleverly unfolding mystery to such scenes as Angela Lansbury’s final and unforgettable five minute monologue which gives me chills every time, it truly is a cinematic classic.

The remake does have a few problems which stop it from rising to the level of excellent (let alone classic), but it’s well above average for the genre and Demme’s best work since “The Silence of the Lambs”. The director films things with a sure hand and interesting visual flourish, helped along by a solid script which plans its reveals carefully and smartly spreads them out. While some scenes and elements do harken heavily back to the original, it makes some refreshing new changes to the way events unfold to give everything a more visceral and faster paced feel that modern audiences require.

Performances are excellent all round with Washington never faltering one bit as he tries to uncover the truth. Streep deliciously indulges in her role as Senator Shaw, one which at times could be dangerously over the top but the actress grounds it with a solid level of conviction and drive. Schreiber, Wright, Voight all turn in great supporting work as well and interactions between the two male leads are quiet yet powerful. The cinematography, design and music all effectively add to the atmosphere.

Like the original, the film takes a while to really get moving and the early Iraqi scenes aren’t particularly interesting. Yet the suspense and tension is well-laid out even though much of the story everyone is already familiar with. The strong ending is capped off by an unusual and unsatisfying coda, whilst some of the nightmare brainwashing sequences look impressive but aren’t ever fully explored (who were those people with the facial stripes?). Still it’s minor flaws in what is otherwise one of the few remakes which not just works but stands proudly on its own.