The Manchurian Candidate
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During the Gulf War in 1991, a U.S. Army patrol is ambushed and faces extinction save for the heroics of one soldier: Sgt. Raymond Prentiss Shaw. That feat earns him the Medal of Honor. Part of a wealthy and politically connected family, Shaw goes on to become a congressman. From that position, his manipulative mother manages to force him onto the vice-presidential ticket for an upcoming election.
The rest of Shaw's unit doesn't fare so well. Years later, the survivors suffer from a variety of psychological disorders that include bizarre, frightening dreams. The patrol’s commanding officer, Ben Marco, fears he’s losing his mind until he chances upon another member of that so-called “Lost Patrol,” who describes his dreams. They’re the same dreams Marco suffers from. The two also use the exact same words to describe Shaw. Wondering if someone is messing with his head, Marco starts investigating the circumstances of that long-ago battle in the desert. (He’d been knocked unconscious early in the fight.) For some reason he can’t shake the feeling that things did not happen quite as he seems to remember them.
Perhaps the key to the mystery lies with Raymond Shaw. Perhaps it’s to be found in the corridors of a secretive multinational company called Manchurian Global, which has financed Shaw’s political campaigns. Or maybe Marco really is crazy. Thus unfolds a tortuous plot where no one can be trusted and things are often not as they first appear.
Ben Marco is a dedicated military officer, and despite veiled threats and fearing for his sanity, he continues to search for the truth. A federal law enforcement officer puts her life in jeopardy to help him. A man deliberately puts himself in the line of fire, effectively sacrificing himself, to end a greater evil.
A woman scolds a man by saying, “Your god is money.” A political candidate is briefly shown in front of a church.
Shaw's mom gives him an affectionate kiss on the lips, and then she gives him a look that seems to imply that there’s more between them than a mother-son bond. Marco is seen showering (from the waist up).
A battlefield ambush is shown in several quick cuts of men firing rifles and machine guns. During the fight an ambusher is shot just before he can launch a rocket-propelled grenade, and an Iraqi helicopter is shot down.
A man reduced to insanity lives in a filthy apartment, the walls of which are covered with bizarre and disturbing drawings, including one of a man being shot in the head. He carries a notebook full of similar drawings. Marco hallucinates a bullet hole appearing on a woman’s forehead with blood dripping out.
[Spoiler Warning] Worse, in a psychotic dream Marco sees himself executing a fellow soldier by shooting him in the forehead. He sees another soldier strangling a comrade, who vomits as he dies. In another flashback/dream sequence, a man is suffocated by having a plastic sheet held over his face. Two people are shot dead through the chest. Two others are murdered by drowning; we see their faces contorted in pain as they struggle for air. Indeed, in every one of these murder sequences, the camera refuses to blink or pull away.
Also, a decaying body is pulled from a river. A man is punched square in the face, bloodying his nose. Marco uses a pocketknife to dig a metal implant out of his shoulder muscle. He later attacks another man and bites that portion of his shoulder, drawing quite a bit of blood. Marco receives electroshock therapy, which causes his body to convulse.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word. The s-word is used about six times. A few milder vulgarities include "h---," "a--" and "d--n." God’s name is abused at least a half-dozen times (several times it's combined with "d--n"). Jesus’ name is exclaimed once. Soldiers exchange coarse insults, but most of it is unintelligible over the loud music.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A few men smoke cigarettes or cigars. Marco is injected with a narcotic before being given electroshock therapy. A man consumes prodigious amounts of No-Doze.
Other Negative Elements
In an excruciating scene, a man has a hole drilled into his skull. The “good guys” cover up a criminal plot by falsifying evidence. Soldiers gamble over cards.
This remake of 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate artfully plucks the tangled strings of paranoia, not just with a capital P, but also capitals A, R, A, N, O, I and A. With an exclamation point. It succeeds in portraying characters who are not sure they can believe what they “know”—and neither can the audience.
The original version, which stared Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, was based on a 1959 Cold War novel by Richard Condon. It was very much a product of its time. The overriding theme was the Communist menace combined with paranoia left over from the McCarthy era and the Korean War. That war introduced a concept called “brainwashing,” with which the Chinese communists were supposedly able to completely cleanse a man’s mind of certain ideas—love of country, for example—and replace them with sinister instructions that could be activated by a simple command. These so called “sleeper agents” could be anywhere and everywhere. (The theory is psychologically suspect today.)
This 2004 film is also very much a product of its time—for a certain segment of the political spectrum, that is. It has replaced fear of Communism, a demonstrated evil, with fear of multinational corporations. For that reason, there’s little overall menace in this film. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get all worked up about Wal-Mart’s expansion into Central America or a U.S. investment firm with offices all over the world. I lived through part of the Red Scare, and it was, well, scarier. And to be honest, the supposedly sinister Manchurian Global plays a very small role in this movie, serving mainly to allow the filmmakers to use the same title.
That doesn't diminish the movie's taut plot and the paranoid sense of uncertainty felt by the main character. It has enough blind alleys and tantalizing twists to keep viewers on the edges of their seats and uncertain until the very end. What does diminish it is the graphic—sometimes gratuitous—violence and spatterings of crude language that'll force most families to vote against this candidate at the box office.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Denzel Washington as Maj. Ben Marco; Meryl Streep as Sen. Eleanor Shaw; Liev Schreiber as Raymond Prentiss Shaw; Kimberly Elise as Rosie; Jon Voight as Sen. Thomas Jordan; Jeffrey Wright as Cpl. Al Melvin