Cinema Signal:

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate:
The CIA and Mind Control.

. "Manchurian Candidate"

The idea of controlling minds with brain implants sounds a lot like a clich‚, but it's all in how it's done. Though this oft used futuristic device has its appeal in pulp fiction and 3rd rate movies, Jonathan Demme's way with it produces compelling suspense. The secret is in the character portrayals and masterful story structure.

At the conclusion of Major Bennett Marco's (Denzell Washington) inspirational speech about the courage of his troops during an ambush in the Kuwaiti desert at the time of the 1st Gulf War, he's greeted by one of the men in his platoon (Jeffrey Wright). This guy is wasted, the result of nightmares that are driving him to madness. Marco tries to help but has no way to stop the dreams. He can barely handle his own.

What these nightmares have in common are images that conflict with the men's memorues of what happened during that sorrowful incident, and they don't improve with time. The general effect is psychic degradation stemming from the uneasy feeling that the dreams are what's real and the memories are not to be trusted.

It's oddly wound up with politics. Senator Eleanor Shaw (Merrill Streep), a prototype of the female power-wielders in Washington, is promoting her son Raymond as the vice presidential candidate in the upcoming election, and the arguments she makes before the selection committee is a testament to the genral good writing by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. They create a "Washington Moment" in a politically charged scene and we accept that a national star is born.

But Raymond is another man out of Marco's squad that night. He's having dreams, too, but he's suppressing them and, so far, is going along with the reality that he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits. All we've seen from that night before the ambush is that the troops found him laughable. But there's nothing laughable about the heights of power toward which he's reaching at the hands of his influential mother.

Of course, it's not all about political influence, since Manchurian Global, a multinational corporation, has put into her hands a tool that real politicians can only dream of... mind control. And, therein, lies the tale of political manipulation that makes the real thing look like a model of idealistic cordiality.

Blame it on Merrill. She's hell on wheels with perfectly attuned canines for the political jugular. In an interview she explained that she based her interpretation on her observation of pols -- a crowd, she believes, that seems to be so delighted with themselves, as though they're any worse than many an actor. But, it's safe to say, not so Merrill, who cuts to the chase and always adds acutely attuned dimensionality to what might turn out as banality or triteness with a lesser talent.

John Voight is pitch perfect as the distinguished and estimable Sen. Thomas Jordan, the man who rightfully should have been the party's choice for veep. Not to be missed here is Kimberly Elise as Rosie, a charmer who enters Marco's life at a critical moment, both for his mental rescue as well as his physical one. We have to watch this actress for her no-nonsense control of our admiration.

Liev Schreiber is a good choice for a role calling for a swagger to cover weakness, a man with a multiple personality through no fault of his genetic inheritance and, ultimately, the one with the most to gain, who falls prey to those who would recreate him.

Then, there's Denzell, who can almost do no wrong and whose accomplished everyman fitfully, faithfully takes us on his nightmarish journey of conspriracy in high places.

In this dreamscape, there are a few snoozing moments, but dramaturg Demme pulls it out and for most of the night, keeps us wrapped in his string of suspense.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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