Armed men hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage in return for a ransom, and turning an ordinary day's work for dispatcher Walter Garber into a face-off with the mastermind behind the crime.
When his army unit was ambushed during the first Gulf War, Sergeant Raymond Shaw saved his fellow soldiers just as his commanding officer, then-Captain Ben Marco, was knocked unconscious. Brokering the incident for political capital, Shaw eventually becomes a vice-presidential nominee, while Marco is haunted by dreams of what happened -- or didn't happen -- in Kuwait. As Marco (now a Major) investigates, the story begins to unravel, to the point where he questions if it happened at all. Is it possible the entire unit was kidnapped and brainwashed to believe Shaw is a war hero as part of a plot to seize the White House? Some very powerful people at Manchurian Global corporation appear desperate to stop him from finding out. Written by
I have to admit, I was horrified to see that someone was remaking the 1964 near-masterpiece. I had no intention of seeing it, but then I happened to catch Demme and Washington on "Charlie Rose", and Demme put my mind to rest that he was not trying to remake the original picture. I was still skeptic, but I decided to have an open mind and check it out for myself. I'm glad I did.
The only thing this film has in common with the 1964 film is a political background, a domineering mother, and the brainwashing angle (which is done significantly differently here). This film is about what's happening now, and it's as gutsy as any film in today's political climate can possibly get. The story is told through the inflamed, paranoid POV of a Gulf War veteran who tries to unveil a plot between a corporate hierarchy (that's involved in the defense industries and medical technologies among other things) and certain politicians who want to stake their influence on a vice presidential nominee. This 'influence' is achieved through the brainwashing of the nominee as well as several soldiers who had been stationed with him in Kuwait.
Political machinery and defense industries have always been dangerous bedfellows, but when the politicians actually have worked in, and have personal interests in those industries, the motivations of such a partnership can be used to exploit the public in all sorts of ominous ways. This film brilliantly places the sort of paranoia that can derive from such precarious matches as a sign of our times. Consciously or subconsciously, conspiracies are on all of our minds. Today, because there is so much secrecy in the current administration, no one knows just how terrible OR innocent these guys might really be. And where there is secrecy, there will be conspiracy theories galore. Paranoia is so commonplace in such a society that it is technically very easy for plots and lies to thrive healthfully. We tell ourselves, "the government is honest and probably has good reasons to keep secrets from the public, so those who see plots and conspiracies must all simply be deluded and paranoid. Right?"
The fact is that politicians can easily lie, and the media, instead of demanding the truth, puts outrageous spins on those lies claiming to present them as 'facts'. This becomes an almost intolerable static that begins to blot out all meaning. One of the most ingenious things about this film is in its use of that kind of static. Throughout much of the film, there is a cacophony of radios and TV spewing out their obligatory spins simultaneously, as well as the nearly constant sounds of traffic and people talking over one another. The people in this movie can hear, but no one is listening. There's also a proverbial static between science and technology and the moral questions that remain elusive. The survivors of the brainwashing experiment mentioned above, have little chips implanted in their backs that somehow aid the brainwashers. The chips could be some sort of homing device, or perhaps some sort of hormone moderator that's supposed to keep the men in the mental state that makes them more easily susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Well, chips that can serve as homing devices, or that can regulate hormones and amino acids such as tryptophan, are in the experimental phase today. In other words, this isn't way-out science fiction here!
Okay, I know I'm sounding like I'm paranoid and that I'm saying that everything in this film can and will happen. Don't worry, I know this is just a movie and that the events depicted in it are EXTREMELY unlikely to ever take place. What I'm focusing on is how well the film takes themes, facts and situations that are topical and at least emotionally legitimate, and presents them in the context of a whopper of a good thriller. The film is fresh and audacious and honest in all of its approaches, with the one exception of Meryl Streep who seems to think she's in a Bette Davis movie. In the original "Manchurian Candidate" Angela Lansbury played her role, and she was appropriately icy, deliberate, and almost iconic in the way she carried her power. For some reason Streep tried to go to self-consciously comic proportions (you can almost see her winking at the audience saying "don't you just LOVE how bad I am?"). The rest of the performances however, are appropriately sober and solid. I never caught Washington acting, and Schrieber is masterful in the way he consolidates the conscious and subconscious friction of his character's agony into an invisible but palpable tension. The score by Rachel Portman is eerily reminiscent of Howard Shore's score for "Silence of the Lambs", and just as exciting and effective. And I can't help but thrill over Wyclef Jean's fantastic rendition of the CCR song "Fortunate One": a version as appropriate to this decade as the original version was to the late sixties (check out the lyrics: replace 'senator's son' with 'president's' son, and see if George W. Bush doesn't come to mind!).
Finally, is this film as good as the original version? They're so different I honestly can't compare. I can only say that this film is as appropriate to the political and sociological climate of today as the original was to its day. Don't forget both versions were based on a novel, so comparisons should be made in that context more than anything else (I haven't read the book so I can't comment on that). There are some loopholes in the current film's plot, and I do love the cinematic style of the original film more than this one. But as I was only a kid when the first film came out, this film has a slightly stronger emotional impression on me than the other one. I only hope all it stays science fiction!
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