Saturday, December 17, 2011
#258: The Manchurian Candidate
So much of the premise of The Manchurian Candidate is like Courage Under Fire, it is hard to avoid a comparison. Both films are about a medal of honor that's awarded to a soldier in a tough battle fight and the film then unravels if the honor was well deserved. There had been an even earlier film based on the same 1959 Richard Condon novel of the same name. While the premise is undoubtedly intriguing and the peeling of layer by layer of what exactly happened holds viewer attention, what happens in the 2004 version of the film is definitely notches below Courage Under Fire.
Denzel Washington plays Major Ben Marco who was the leader of the troops that were surrounded by enemy fire on a night in the Kuwait War. What happens next is very sketchy in the memories of all the survivors of that attack. What emerges though is that it was Seargent Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber) who led the soldiers through and took on the enemy single-handedly. The episode got christened as the 'Lost Patrol' event of the war and Private Shaw went on to win the most coveted honor bestowed by the US Army - the Congressional Medal of Honor. Years later, delivering a speech at a convention, Washington is coaxed into realization by a fellow survivor that something about that event wasn't right. And there begins the central plot of The Manchurian Candidate.
The other key characters that emerge on this journey are Senator Eleanor Shaw, the power-hungry mother of Raymond Shaw, played with elan and conviction by the timeless Meryl Streep. Jon Voight plays the vice-presidential nominee against Raymond Shaw. The suspense as it unravels is tempting but only till the time the reason for the anomaly in the 'Lost Patrol' episode emerges. That hook is not something that is quite convincing and that's the first time where the film begins to lose its grip. What director Jonathan Demme, however manages inspite of that is extracting a couple of brilliant performances from Liev Schrieber. The cold steely character of Raymond Shaw being manipulated by his wily mother is the highlight of the film. The mother-son combination is brilliant and are magnetic to watch especially when together. Denzel Washington as the wronged General is purposive but not quite at his best.
Once the screenplay loses its grip somewhere in the middle, the movie struggles to justify its length at 130 minutes. Its most redeeming feature Meryl Streep can only stem the movie from becoming a bore with her electric presence. But little is achieved in terms of dramatic tension apart from her. To sum it up, The Manchurian Candidate is a promising affair that goes awry and by the time it recovers, it is of no relevance.