Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a veteran of the first Gulf War. On a reconnaissance mission during the war his platoon was ambushed, and they only escaped thanks to the heroic actions of Sgt Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Driven by his overbearing Senator mother (Meryl Streep), Shaw entered politics after the war, and he is now running for election as Vice President of the US.
After being approached by a soldier from his old platoon who has been having disturbing nightmares, Marco begins to doubt his own memories of the night of the ambush. As he tries to discover what might really have happened, he finds a murky trail that leads him to Shaw, and a conspiracy involving brainwashing, murder, and the sinister Manchurian Global corporation.
I haven’t seen the John Frankenheimer version of The Manchurian Candidate, nor have I read the original novel, so I can only judge this version on its own merits. Washington, Schreiber, and Streep all give convincingly disturbed and disturbing performances, but they are let down by a script that feels less than wholly natural. Also, even though much of the plot revolves around a political campaign, the screenplay studiously avoids any mention of party affiliation. Given the themes of corruption and manipulation, the film could hardly use either of the main US political parties as its basis; but it uses this apparent neutrality to critique both parties, and the attempt feels blunt and clumsy.
Despite this, the film does create an effective atmosphere of tension and paranoia that lasts right up to the climax. It just doesn’t do anything more.