Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Review: The Manchurian Candidate

Warning: this review contains spoilers. Do not read it if you haven't seen the movie and knowing certain events ahead of time will ruin the experience for you. Personally, I actually don't mind spoilers and even tend to seek them out, but I know they're not everyone's cup of tea.

This is the 2004 remake of the 1962 original. I saw the original, probably about ten years ago, after wanting to see it for ages. I guess I just wasn't in the right frame of mind, because it bored me, I didn't pay attention, and I don't remember it at all. Still, I realized somehow that the shortcoming was mine, not the movie's. I'll have to go rent it again.

Anyway, the 2004 movie is an interesting ride into the kind of paranoia, personal and national, that's common these days. The rapid advance of science and the "screw liberty, make us safe" philosphy in the States these days combine to make the plot seem almost plausible.

In most regards, the plot stays pretty close to the oringial, inasmuch as time and circumstances will allow. Denzel Washington playsarmy major Bennet Marco who, as a captain, led a platoon in the Gulf War. Ambushed in Kuwait back in 1991, the "lost" platoon became famous for resurfacing three days later. A sergeant in the platoon wins the Congressional Medal of Honor for his combat bravery. The son of a senator, he eventually ends up in Congress himself, and is on the verge of becoming Vice President as the movie unfolds.

But something happened to the platoon during those lost three days. The surviving members (of whom there are fewer and fewer all the time) have strange dreams in which they're in an Arabian ruin, undergoing strange procedures, and in which some of the platoon willingly kill other members.

For me, Meryl Streep, playing the mother of Congressman/war hero Raymond Shaw (played by Liev Schreiber), herself a US Senator, steals the show. She's entirely believable as a person who believes might makes right, personally, nationally, and internationally; the sort of person who believes you have to nuke a few chicken farms to make an omlette. Even as a liberal, I found some of her rhetoric if not convincing, then at least illuminating—this is how the world makes sense to conservatives. It was an education.

The frenetic, slightly comic media blitz, the vaguely "life in Israel" reports of terrorist bombings (one in Denver, of all places), and the not-quite-there-yet-but-almost nature of the tech all gave an interesting and believable feeling of a point not too far into the future... another election or two ahead. It made methink it might be interesting to see what our world would look like to someone from, say, 1980... when I look back now, even I can sense the weird ramp-up in media presentation and futuretech (guys walking down the street, talking on the phone? Star Trek!). This movie does a really good job of making you feel like you did a Rip Van Winkle and woke up just a few years from now. It's worth seeing for that feeling alone, I thought.

There were some things I didn't like about the movie, though. First of all, it's fine to re-use the title. But then, as if feeling we were all too stupid to understand the reference, they went out of their way to justify it by having the corporation behind the conspiracy (and yes, this time it's domestic plutocrats, not foreign commies) called "Manchurian Global". Yawn. Come on, guys, give us some credit. Or better yet, change the title. After all, the Cohen Brothers didn't make "The Iliad", they made "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".

The score was irritating. Absolutely. Whether the icepick-in-the-ear "buy the soundtrack" snippets in the first scene—possibly the most shameless, perfunctory, naked product placement in the movies this year—or just the whine of a fly you just can't smack in the form of wearying incidental music, I found it a major negative aspect of the film. Again, the makers of this film would not give the audience credit to be able to sift through what's being presented to them and decide for themselves when things were getting weird. No, they felt it necessary to play a nearly constant "worry here" theme in the background. It wasn't used sparingly. It was omnipresent. I'd like to give them credit and say they were making some sort of subtle comment about the nature of the media in modern American life... but frankly, I think they worried we just wouldn't get it if they didn't press our buttons. The movie would be greatly improved if they'd tone that down, or remove it altogether.

For a movie that was largely believable, there were a couple of scenes that were just eye-rollingly too much. [Okay, spoiler time.] One was the scene in which Congressman Shaw is telephoned when he's alone in his hotel room and told to go to the closet. He obeys, and as he arrives, the back of the closet is pulled away, and he walks into a medical examination room. Uhhhhhh, yeah. Riiiiiight. Do you know how many Secret Service guys, FBI, police, hotel staff, dog catchers, etc., would have to be in on something like that to get away with it? Yeah, cool gimmick, but gimme a break here. And the scene in which Shaw's mother programs him to go out to his rival's cottage on Chesapeake Bay and drown him right out in the open... oh, come on! Yeah, you're going to send the guy who's hours away from being elected Vice President of the United States out to commit murder in public, where any fatass jogging by can witness it. A conspiracy like this doesn't have one or two heavies on staff who can pull this off and provide plausible deniability? That was entirely stupid. We already know he kills on command; they showed him strangling a trooper in Kuwait. The scene was unnecessary. Worse, it mars the movie by introducing a plot element that's too implausible to believe. Not a good idea in a movie that already asks you to swallow a fair amount of way-out supposition. Finally, the cover-up of the cover-up at the end, in which a conveniently dead Manchurian Global-baddy is digitally airbrushed in over Major Marco on a security tape... that would take days, maybe weeks, done by hand to make sure it was believable to the human eye, not seconds done by Photoshop On 'Roids. The ending was thus unsatisfying. Instead of a broad public revelation of what was going on, we're left with this vague, wishy-washying "You got some 'spainin' to do, Lucy" ending in which Manchurian Global execs wring their hands and furrow their brows, probably wondering how much it's going to cost in legal fees to wriggle out of this. I got the vague, disquieting feeling what was being said here, ultimately, was that "it's better the public doesn't know; protect America's fragile, starry-eyed innocence with a few white lies". I disagree.

The movie's worth seeing. But it could have been a lot better.

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