Why are political thrillers so rare these days? And so tricky to get right? Is it because our world-weary, apathetic post-9/11 culture just doesn't believe in idealism anymore? Looking back at the genre's heyday in the '70s, the best political thrillers may have been cynical and angry, but at their core they were humanistic tales made by passionate filmmakers who could no longer tolerate a post-Watergate government bureaucracy mired in lies, corruption and deception. Audiences, too, responded with just as much fervor, turning socially-conscious thrillers like 'Marathon Man,' 'All the President's Men,' 'Chinatown' and 'The Manchurian Candidate' into blockbusters. So it came as a surprise to many when in 2004 Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme ('The Silence of the Lambs,' 'Philadelphia') tried his hand at a remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate.' Not just because John Frankenheimer's original is widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece, but because even if Demme could somehow successfully update the film for the modern age, would mainstream moviegoers still be interested in political paranoia and intrigue?
Drawing equally from Richard Condon's original 1959 novel and George Axelrod's screenplay adaptation from 1962, Demme's take on 'The Manchurian Candidate' remains faithful to the basic structure of both while adding a post-millennium perspective that will keep even disciples of the Frankenheimer film unsure of what comes next. Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a former commander of a Gulf War platoon that survived a bloody ambush in Kuwait due to the bravery of one Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Son of Senator Ellie Shaw (Meryl Streep), this Purple Heart recipient is being groomed for a political breakthrough just as an unanticipated vacancy opens up for the vice presidency. But Marco soon senses something is not right -- suffering vivid, horrifying hallucinations, Marco begins to piece together a Kaftka-esque web of corruption that ultimately leads to the highest quarters of the government.
Both the original and remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate' are tough to discuss without spoiling their many plot twists, so I won't even try. However, to the film's great credit, I will say that while some of the modernizations that Demme and his co-screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris attempt don't completely succeed, Demme expertly recreates the the intense sense of dread and paranoia that infused the original novel and film. Perhaps the most significant reinvention is that the very meaning of the word "Manchurian" has been altered from a Communist threat to a corporate one. Pyne and Georgaris apparently felt that with the Cold War long since won, the concerns and worries of today's Americans are now more about privatization of the marketplace, capitalism run amok and government corruption. Thematically, I think Demme got that right -- his 'Manchurian' oozes from its very celluloid pores an overwhelming atmosphere of inescapable dread. It is so effective because it is so relevant to today's political landscape. Though we may not always know what is going on in the narrative, or why, we never lose faith that Demme's abilities as a storyteller are leading us in the right direction.
The performances are also in many ways superior to those in the original film. Washington is an unexpected and inspired choice for Marco. As he has proven with his strong, commanding work in such films as 'Glory,' 'The Hurricane' and his Oscar-winning turn in 'Training Day,' he knows how to play the unflappable hero. But for Marco he draws from a different, far more vulnerable part of himself. He creates a character that is unstable, conflicted, even meek -- not the Denzel Washington we have seen before, which keeps us off-balance as we doubt Marco just as much as he doubts himself. Schreiber here also delivers a command of his craft only hinted at in his previous performances. He is a near-master at saying little but speaking volumes with just a single haunted glare, laying bare his character's foibles and insecurities. Streep may have had the hardest role to pull off, but rather than trying to compete with Angela Lansbury's revelatory portrayal in the original film, Streep wisely doesn't even try. She is also helped a great deal by the script, which is able to delve deeper into the more disturbing aspects of the character, particularly the incestuous undertones in her relationship with Raymond. There are moments later in the film that truly have the power to shock.
Ultimately, 'The Manchurian Candidate' is not a perfect film, but it is a worthy remake that possesses a genuine urgency and relevance rare in today's world of cynical, cash-in "reimaginings." Compelling as a drama, a political thriller and even sci-fi, 'The Manchurian Candidate' remains somewhat underrated and overlooked. Undoubtedly some fans of the original will dismiss the remake on principal alone, but if you're looking for an intelligent, stimulating thriller of the kind they don't make too often anymore, 'The Manchurian Candidate' is well worth voting for.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded at 1080p, this is a nice-looking if not superlative transfer from Paramount. Jonathan Demme reteamed with his 'Silence of the Lambs' director of photography Tak Fujimoto to shoot 'The Manchurian Candidate,' and the two films actually do look a bit similar -- somewhat dark and clinical, yet with sharp, vibrant imagery and bold if naturalistic colors.
This first-ever high-def presentation of the film does a good job at translating 'Candidate's film-like look to the home screen. The print is in fine shape, with some intended graininess in the darker scenes and warm colors that are not overly processed. However, the film does still look a bit tweaked and inconsistent at times. Some shots appear intentionally desaturated, while others boast hues that looked a little too pumped up, which can flatten out detail. Contrast also looks a bit blander than most recent transfers I've seen, though a few shots (most notably Denzel Washington's dream-like flashbacks) are intentionally blown out, which causes bright whites to bloom. Also -- and I don't know if this is intentional -- but mid-range and shadow detail are slightly less impressive than the best high-def I've seen because some segments appear to have been shot with filters to give them a softer look. On the plus side, the image does boast more depth than the standard DVD release, and there are several scenes that are quite striking. So maybe I'm just getting a bit spoiled by the steady stream of great HD DVD discs lately, because even a perfectly fine transfer as this now seems somewhat underwhelming.
Paramount offers both Dolby Digital-Plus and DTS 5.1 surround tracks for 'The Manchurian Candidate,' though regardless of audio format, the film's sound design is just not as engaging as I had hoped. 'The Manchurian Candidate' is so much about creating a sustained mood of paranoia and dread that it is surprising its sound design isn't more immersive and enveloping.
Technically, there is nothing wrong with either track. Dynamic range is nice and pleasing, with a natural and warm presence across the entire frequency spectrum. However, the sound never really pops, with dialogue and sound effects coming off oddly flat for a major Hollywood production. Surround use is also largely uninspired. The mix is front heavy, with only sporadic if effective deployment of minor discrete sounds and Rachel Portman's eerie score to the rears. There is little in the way of aggressive movement around the soundfield, which is quite a missed opportunity. Again, there is nothing wrong with the Dolby Digital-Plus and DTS tracks offered here -- they're fine -- but neither is particularly memorable.
Though this HD DVD release contains the same extras as the standard DVD release, that's not such a bad a thing this time, as 'The Manchurian Candidate' includes a wealth of supplements that offer a fairly comprehensive overview of the making of the film.
Kicking things off is an audio commentary with director Jonathan Demme and co-screenwriter Daniel Pyne. This is certainly the centerpiece of the disc and its highlight. Both Demme and Pyne are very easygoing, insightful and engaging, discussing their overall approach to remaking such a classic film and the subsequent changes they made, as well as sharing scene-specific making-of stories. Listening to this track, I was reminded why audio commentaries have become so ubiquitous a feature on DVDs (and are likely to remain that way on the new high-def formats). Because when they are as solid as this one, they are still the best and most direct way to get inside the mind of filmmakers and why they make the decisions they do. A great track even for more casual fans of the film.
Next up are two featurettes, though they are not as in-depth as they could have been. The 14-minute 'The Enemy Within' is your basic making-of, full of on-set footage and interviews with all of the main cast and crew, as well as executive Tina Sinatra (Frank's daughter). But why is it so short? Had this been at least a half an hour, it could have cut deeper than just surface level -- the audio commentary is much more illuminating. The 12-minute "The Cast of 'Manchurian Candidate'" adds a bit of much-needed perspective on the film's characters, though most of the EPK interview snippets with the likes of Demme, Pyne, Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep are too fast-paced for the cast to be able to get at anything really meaty. I've certainly seen worse featurettes than these, but I've also seen better.
More goodies include a collection of excised material. There are five Deleted Scenes a two-minute Outtake reel, and Liev Schreiber's Screen Test, all with optional commentary by Demme and Pyne. For once, the deleted scenes are actually quite good, though it is fairly obvious why Demme cut them, mainly for time. But its worth giving these a watch as they're rather interesting.
By far the most unique extra is "Political Pundits," a 14-minute assemblage of roundtable interviews with six well-known industry luminaries discussing the current state of politics, including director Sidney Lumet, rapper Fab 5 Freddy, actress Anna Deveane Smith and writer Roy Blount Jr. Demme and Pyne provide even more commentary on this one, and it was an interesting idea -- Demme pooled the participants together to get their perspective on America's attitudes towards its government. I'm not sure how much this informed the finished product, if at all, but Demme is nothing if not well prepared.
Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer presented in full 1080p video.
Though it could never be as prescient and timely as the original, the remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate' is an engrossing and intelligent thriller in its own right. Paramount has produced a good HD DVD release for the film, with a solid transfer and soundtrack and a wealth of extras. Though this may not be the disc you whip out as demo material to impress your friends, it is another perfectly respectable addition to Paramount's growing library of HD DVD titles.