Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of the Abscam comedy American Hustle has us thinking back on other films about politics and corruption.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Jonathan Demme updates Cold War paranoia for the War On Terror age with The Manchurian Candidate, a surprisingly sturdy remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic. In Demme’s 2004 redo, the bad guys aren’t the communists, or even the Iraqis whom Major Marco (Denzel Washington) finds himself fighting in Kuwait on the eve of Desert Storm. Rather, they’re the military-industrial-complex bigwigs who hunger for both profit and control of the Oval Office. To that end, the villains nab Major Marco and his team—including Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a political scion groomed for the throne by his fierce mother, Eleanor (Meryl Streep)—and brainwash them all into believing the false story of Raymond saving the whole battalion from enemy attack. Thus, the war-hero narrative is set, paving the way to a VP nomination for Raymond, who can then presumably be controlled by his corporate overlords.
The only problem, it turns out, is that Marco’s dreams about torture, cranial experimentation, and murder in Terry Gilliam-esque laboratories soon tip him off to the truth of his circumstances. He quickly embarks on a quest to convince Raymond—or anyone else—of the dastardly plot afoot. Despite retrofitting the story for a post-9/11 period, Demme does little to radically alter the material, though he shoots it with enough crazy-man canted angles and light-dark visual dynamics to make it thrum. Ultimately, though, this new Manchurian Candidate justifies its own existence via its performances. From Washington’s haunted-man gaze and dogged head-shaking determination, to Schreiber’s blank-stare vacancy and equally creepy robot smile, the film is a showcase for sterling performances. But none are better than the one delivered by Streep, who brings her own unique brand of win-at-any-cost, patriotism-run-amok insanity—and incestuous longing—to the role of Eleanor, the most conniving of all cinematic Mommy Dearests.
Availability: Demme’s Manchurian Candidate remake is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital providers.