Directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight and Jeffrey Wright.
Jonathan Demme knows how to get back up from a kicking. Savaged in the press for 'The Truth About Charlie', his take on Stanley Donen's 'Charade', he then decides to remake a 1960s classic which, along with 'The Parallax View', 'The Conversation' and 'All the President's Men', occupies the hallowed ground of the conspiracy thriller genre. The results are 100 times more watchable than 'The Truth About Charlie' but, unlike the original, this film won't be revered 40 years down the line.
Having served with distinction in the first Gulf War, and now bearing the post-traumatic burden of it, Major Ben Marco (Washington, in the role originally played by Frank Sinatra) now works as a roving PR man for the US Army, visiting high schools and the like. But Marco is shaken out of his stupor by the appearance of Al Melvin (Wright), a former comrade who asks
him if he really remembers what happened in the desert all those years ago.
Marco and Melvin were part of an advance reconnaissance party which came under enemy attack and whose lives were saved by the unlikeliest of candidates in Raymond Shaw (Schreiber), a college boy and senator's son, completely out of synch with the men surrounding him. At least that's the official version of what happened in Kuwait - nobody's really sure. Marco can't sleep and gets flashbacks, Melvin's are even worse and the other men who survived the firefight with them are now all dead.
Except one: Shaw. Shaw is now a congressman, charging his way up the political ladder, powered by his war record, his senator mother (Streep) and some shady friends in very high places. Now with an election coming up, he's a contender for his party's vice presidential nomination. But his biggest task isn't proving to the American public that he's the man for the job, it's convincing Marco that he really is who he says he is.
Swapping the Cold War and brainwashing, for big business and brainwashing, the ecstatic reviews which have greeted Demme's film in some quarters could make you wonder whether someone forgot to get to you in your sleep. The performances are excellent (Washington doing what he always does as well as he always does; Streep chilling and Schreiber getting his teeth into a major role) and the build-up is well-handled, but once the pieces are in place, this is a movie that's both sublime and ridiculous.
The biggest problem is that after setting up a conspiracy that taps into so many current issues, Demme then dilutes its power with over-the-top flashback scenes and way-too-big plot jumps. No matter how furrowed your brow is, when the evil South African brainwasher appears and utters, "Hello Major, do you remember me?" like a long-lost character from 'The Fast Show', it's hard to keep a straight face. And when Shaw decides to take matters into his own hands by killing a rival who's out canoeing, you won't be surprised if a submarine arrives to pick him up afterwards with a change of clothes. It doesn't, but scenes likes these give conspiracy theorists an even worse name.
For all those faults 'The Manchurian Candidate' is entertaining - even if its far-fetched sequences mean that it doesn't scare the pants off people the way that it should. Then again, we've got real life to take care of that.