Mere pawns in the game

Times Staff Writer

Pulp is powerful.

The strength of sensational material joined to excellent acting, superior filmmaking and uncanny political relevance has made “The Manchurian Candidate” into exceptionally intelligent entertainment and a high point of director Jonathan Demme’s career.

While films with crackling plots often require that we cede some subtlety and emotional complexity, “Candidate” makes no such demands. The story of one man’s struggle to confront an insidious conspiracy, “Candidate” gives a strong cast -- Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber in the performance of his career -- plenty to chew on and asks nothing more than a willingness to go along for the ride.

The film’s political relevance is uncanny because this “Candidate” is a remake. The 1962 original -- directed by John Frankenheimer and written by George Axelrod from Richard Condon’s novel -- starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury in one of the most unsettling films of the decade.


The new “Candidate” is smartly written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, working from the original material. It has built on the first film’s strengths and cut back on its weaknesses while delicately shifting some of the plot dynamics. The result is a political and psychological thriller that is richer in texture and nuance than its predecessor without sacrificing impact.

“Candidate” has made itself at home in the post-Sept. 11 environment, trading up from the 1960s fear of the communist menace to today’s much more unnerving arena of terrorism alerts and unilateral invasions.

Though its characters and situations are fictitious, “Candidate’s” world is eerily similar to our own. It’s a place where an imminent presidential election will turn on the way the current administration conducts itself militarily, where background news broadcasts talk of bombing raids and problematical electronic voting machines.

Conspiracy theories that once might have seemed far-fetched seem all too plausible, and the reach and ambitions of Manchurian Global, a multinational corporation that makes out like a bandit (sound familiar?) on no-bid war contracts, can seem at least as frightening as the Chinese Communists of the bad old days.

One reason “Candidate” is so successful is that director Demme responds strongly to both the pulp and the political aspects of the project. His “Philadelphia” and even “Beloved” connected to real world concerns (as do his Haitian documentaries, including the recent “The Agronomist”) while the multi-Oscar-winning “The Silence of the Lambs” says all that’s necessary about the director’s thriller gifts.

Using his usual crack production team of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, production designer Kristi Zea and editors Carol Littleton and Craig McKay, Demme knows how to best unfold “Candidate’s” complex, multilayered plot, how to first unsettle us and then make things clear. And, unlike many directors who understand tension, he is also adept at the kind of subdued dramatic moments that raise this film considerably above the norm.


Because those moments are important to him, Demme has seen to it that the film was cast especially well -- even apart from his three stars. He’s put the strongest possible actor’s actors, people like Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga, in smaller but critical parts. He’s made excellent use of Jon Voight in his least mannered performance in memory and given cameos to people from his past like producer Roger Corman. He’s even continued a Demme tradition by using (and identifying in the credits) a photograph of his old mentor, now deceased, producer Kenny Utt.

As far as his leads go, Demme has encouraged performances that we might not have expected. This is most true with Denzel Washington as U.S. Army Maj. Ben Marco, introduced as a commanding figure exchanging fire with the enemy during Gulf War combat. It’s a moment to savor, because this familiar Washington gradually -- and scarily -- recedes.

“Candidate” picks up in the present, with a subdued Marco giving a talk to a Washington-area Boy Scout troop about the Medal of Honor, describing how a sergeant under his command, Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Schreiber), won it in the engagement we’ve just seen.

It’s not only Boy Scouts who’ve turned out for his talk; former Gulf War comrade Cpl. Al Melvin (Wright, brilliant as always) is also waiting at the back of the room.

The corporal does not look well, not well at all. He has these dreams every night, terrible, soul-destroying dreams, that have caused him to twitch and shudder and fill up worn-out notebooks with strange writings and unsettling drawings. Has the major had dreams like that, Cpl. Melvin wonders? No, the major firmly replies, he has not.

It turns out, however, that Maj. Marco is not as together as he seems. His apartment, far from being as tidy as his uniform, is a pack rat’s cluttered warren, and he in fact has been having those same agonizing dreams. Melvin’s appearance further disturbs the major’s fragile equilibrium, and he heads to New York to find the former Sgt. Shaw and see if he’s anxious as well.


The well-connected Shaw has morphed into a two-term New York congressman who is better known for being the son of the powerful Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Streep). The senator is introduced in a riveting scene, persuading party leaders to give the vice presidential nomination for the upcoming election not to the liberal Sen. Thomas Jordan (Voight) but to her Medal of Honor-winning son.

This is the role that earned Lansbury an Oscar nomination in the 1962 film and Streep has her own compelling take on it. Her Sen. Shaw starts over the top and a bit foolish, but that is almost a pose, a way to distract the world from just how smart and ruthless she can be. She teases her son, calling him things like “my plucky idealist” and “Mr. Grumpy,” but she is proud of having separated him from the only woman (Farmiga) he’s ever loved. And she can, in some of the film’s most unsettling scenes, be terribly tender to the boy she’s pinned all her hopes on. The heart of “Candidate,” however is the relationship between Marco and Shaw, old war comrades who share an experience that changed them both and a secret neither fully understands.

Schreiber, a well-regarded actor with a wide range of credits, has never been as compelling, bringing poignancy and dignity to a frighteningly ambivalent character, someone who’s simultaneously victim and villain. No one ever steals a movie from Washington, but Schreiber comes closer than anyone could have predicted.

As for Washington, he provides the narrative drive of “Candidate” but under radically different circumstances than he’s used to. His Maj. Marco, aided by an acquaintance named Rosie (“Beloved’s” fine Kimberly Elise), trudges around New York pulling at the loose threads of his dreams, trying to figure out what they mean, but without the competence and charisma that are usually the actor’s trademarks.

For though we sense the major’s potential power, it is often muted. The man himself is on the verge of a perpetual fog, not sure who is a friend, who is a threat, and exuding a kind of helplessness that is as uncomfortable for audiences as it is for him. It was a risk for Washington to play the role this way, a clear departure not only from his previous parts but also from the way Frank Sinatra handled the original. But those chances taken make the result even more powerfully effective.

In a similar vein, “The Manchurian Candidate” disconcerts as much as it comforts. Traditionally the lure of these films is that once the smoke has cleared a moral balance is restored, the world on film makes reassuring sense even if the world outside does not. “Candidate” does this to a point, but because it’s a film for our particularly difficult geopolitical times, it can go only so far. Its ambivalence gets into our heads, making us as troubled as the major, and it’s a stronger, more significant film for having the nerve and the skill to have done so.



‘The Manchurian Candidate’

MPAA rating: R for violence and some language

Times guidelines: Disturbing images of torture

Denzel Washington...Ben Marco

Liev Schreiber...Raymond Shaw

Meryl Streep...Eleanor Shaw

Jon Voight...Sen. Thomas Jordan

Kimberly Elise...Rosie

Paramount Pictures presents a Scott Rudin/Tina Sinatra production, in association with Clinica Estetico, released by Paramount. Director Jonathan Demme. Producers Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Demme, Ilona Herzberg. Executive producer Scott Aversano. Screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, based upon the screenplay by George Axelrod, based upon a novel by Richard Condon. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Editors Carol Littleton, Craig McKay. Costume designer Albert Wolsky. Music Rachel Portman featuring Wyclef Jean. Production designer Kristi Zea. Art director Teresa Carriker-Thayer. Set decorator Leslie E. Rollins. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

In general release.