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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Manchurian Candidate
The Manchurian Candidate
Paramount // R // December 21, 2004
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted December 17, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

No working director today has a bigger set of stones than Jonathan Demme.

I say this with all due respect to all the other courageous directors out there in cinemaland, but Demme's got them all beat. Just before he tackled his 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Demme had previously helmed the 2002 mega-flop The Truth About Charlie, an ill-advised and ultimately disastrous remake of the classic 1963 Stanley Donen film Charade. Loathed by critics and annihilated at the box-office, The Truth About Charlie made cinemaphiles the world over wonder just what in hell was going on with Jonathan Demme. I mean, this was the guy who directed Stop Making Sense, perhaps one of the greatest concert films of all time, as well as comedic gem Married To The Mob and, of course, the multiple Oscar-winning and much beloved The Silence of the Lambs. And while I'm not the biggest Philadelphia fan - I find it to be clumsy and ham-handed - the film was still on the receiving end of critical and commercial success.

And then... 1998's Beloved came and went, a generally awful film that won few people over, followed up four years later with The Truth About Charlie, a remake of a beloved film which substituted Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Clearly a classic case of Hollywood "What were you thinking?"-itis, the film represented the second critical/commercial flop for Demme in a row.

So what did the man do? Did he recoil from the experience and return to more familiar filmmaking roots? Heck no - he directed another remake of a classic and beloved film less than two years later.

Now that's conviction, my friends.

In any case, I'm not going to spend too much time comparing Demme's The Manchurian Candidate to John Frankenheimer's 1962 original film. It's been done by critics and reviewers in print and online, and it's tired. It's old hat. Why can't we simply judge a movie on its own merits? I mean, we rarely complain about a cover tune if the cover band does a bang up job and makes it their own. Why can't we extend that same courtesy to film? Is cinema such a revered art form that no reinterpretation and re-imagination is allowed? Are we so insular that we cannot expand our expectations and ditch our pre-conceived notions in favor of a paradigm that eschews immediate dismissal of interpretive filmmaking? Well, this reviewer won't stand for it. A line in the sand has been drawn: for this review, the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate stands alone, and rises and falls as a singular entity. OK? So let's move on.1

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is haunted by recurring dreams he cannot begin to quantify. He keeps having flashbacks pertaining (perhaps) to his wartime experiences, especially a three-day ordeal in which his entire squad was ambushed by Iraqi soldiers. In a feat that is replete with the type of valor and sacrifice that makes heroes out of men, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) mans a mounted machine gun and successfully fends off his attackers, leading his squad to safety through the desert. Marco immediately recommends Shaw as a recipient of the Medal of Honor, which he receives, and Shaw in turn embarks on a dazzling political career as a Senator, much to the agreement of his mother Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). Eleanor is your classic Stage Mom, a sharp-minded and politically savvy engineer of Raymond's entire career, pulling strings and influencing her party's leadership to solidify her son's Vice-Presidential nomination. There is a heavy suggestion of an incestuous desire from mother to son, even a pseudo-Oedipal implication that perhaps Eleanor might have arranged the death of her husband, Raymond's father. Streep's performance in this role, as usual for her, is magnificent.

Meanwhile, after delivering a speech to a group of boy scouts, Marco is visited by Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), a former soldier under his command in the Gulf War. Melvin is twitchy, glossy-eyed, clutching a notebook full of drawings and scribblings about something - something - that happened during the squad's ambush. Melvin has been having dreams, dreams that didn't make sense but seemed real enough. Did Raymond Shaw really save his men and in act of valiant selflessness under fire, or have memory and reality become hopelessly fragmented? Furthermore, given the upcoming Presidential election, Raymond is potentially a whisper away from the Presidency of the United States, but his campaign is certainly linked to the multinational Manchurian Global Corporation, whose corporate interests include defense contracts, human experimentation, and political affairs worldwide.

This set-up opens up the path that The Manchurian Candidate travels. The movie follows Marco as he sets out to determine what happened to him and his men in the Gulf War, and how these events are linked to the Shaw campaign. The movie initially poses the notion that Marco might be little more that a crackpot, a veteran suffering from Gulf War Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. At first, anyhow... soon after it is explicitly demonstrated that all is definitely not what it seems. This lack of ambiguity might be viewed as a narrative flaw by some, in that it doesn't "leave you guessing." But the film, in and of itself, works quite well. Demme has constructed a thriller that is surprisingly non-partisan. While it doesn't identity its character's political parties by name, the viewer gets a pretty strong idea of the side of the political spectrum to which Shaw (and his mother) belongs. Yet the film attacks corporate influence, political posturing and exploitation at the expense of the American pubilc, pervasiveness of the media, and the intoxicating power of advertising and image placement, from both a commercial and intuitive standpoint. 9/11 and the War on Terror are themes woven like an orchestral score throughout the script, but the movie neither condemns nor satirizes America's response to recent geopolitical events.

The Manchurian Candidate runs 129-minutes, and never feels overly long or padded. Each piece of information falls neatly into place, with just enough chilling moments and ambiguity to keep the viewer riveted. This film is an enjoyable and ultimately winning return to form for Demme.

The DVD

Video:

The Manchurian Candidate is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1, and has been anamorphically-enhanced for your widescreen-viewing doo-dah. Right off the bat, there is quite a bit of edge-enhancement visible throughout the transfer. Check out the edges around Denzel's uniform when he first meets Jeffrey Wright after the "boy scout speech." Halo city, my friends. Color levels are generally rich and stable, with bright contrasts and fine depth to the image. Image detail is somewhat spotty; overall the film looks decent, but there are some moments of softness evident throughout the picture. I also noticed some print defects throughout the transfer. An occasional scratch or piece of debris has been noted to appear and disappear, quickly enough not to be a major issue, but not quick enough to escape the nitpicker's notice. Still, this is overall a very good transfer, but it doesn't excel all that much.

Audio:

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, with an optional French language soundtrack. The audio mix is mostly a winner, with some expansive use of the soundstage that enhances much of the more dramatic and bombastic moments of the film. Check out the fine discrete imaging present throughout the battle scenes, exterior train shots, and during the tense the final scenes of the film. Surrounds are used aggressively, with moderate LFE punch and some dynamic sonic depth. Background and ambient noise is well-rendered, while dialog levels are very adequate. There are a lot of quieter scenes in the film during which the field gravitates to the front stage quite often, but overall this is a winning and engaging mix.

Extras:

The extras start off with an audio commentary track featuring director Jonathan Demme and screenplay co-writer Daniel Pyne. Pyne and Demme are pretty chummy throughout the track, and both offer up a wealth of on-screen commentary and background, anecdotal information pertaining to the film. This is a fine track that really goes into detail about how the filmmakers approached the material. I found it very engaging throughout the entire 2+ hour running time.

The Enemy Within: Inside the Manchurian Candidate is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the film. This fourteen-minute piece features most of the major cast and crew, including producer Nancy Sinatra, Denzel Washington, Jonathan Demme, and Meryl Streep. Although a bit brief, this feature provides some interesting tidbits and is well worth your time.

Next up is The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate, a twelve-minute featurette dedicated to the actors who made the film come alive. It's mostly "rah-rah yay us" material, but it's not without its interesting parts. While not as informative as the previous featurette or the commentary, this piece is still somewhat value-adding.

We move on to five deleted/extended scenes: "Marco and Raymond Talk On Patrol", "Marco's Worried Neighbor", "Raymond Meets Executives While Senator Jordan Confronts Ellie At Fundraise", "Campaign Trail Montage", and "Marco And Raymond Interrupted at Campaign HQ". While many of these scenes are interesting, I can see why they were removed or trimmed from the final film for pacing purposes. Also included are two outtakes: "Ellie's Interview With Stacey Newsome-Santiago" and "Ellie's Interview With Al Franken". Both the deleted scenes and outtakes come with optional commentary from Demme and Pyne.

Wrapping up the extras, we have the Liev Schreiber Screen Test, which is moderately interesting, and ten minutes of Political Pundits, in which various actors/journalists/politico types offer up their thoughts on the film. Not the best extra feature in the world, this bit also comes with some commentary by Demme. Finally, we have previews, which are trailers for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Without A Paddle, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Team America: World Police, and The Stepford Wives.

Final Thoughts:

The Manchurian Candidate was not a big hit upon its release last summer, but it wasn't a flop either. In any case, the film itself is a winner. Although its slick artifice works against its gritty storyline, the movie succeeds in presenting a thriller that actually thrills, and earns points for being a political film that refuses to simply regurgitate partisan rhetoric and "see I told you so!" fact. The presentation of The Manchurian Candidate on DVD isn't perfect but still looks and sounds quite well, and there are plenty of extras to keep fans interested. This DVD merits a solid and well-deserved Recommendation.


1 I... um... also haven't seen the original film.

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