The Manchurian Candidate (2004) thoughts of a UK script consultant

The late Jonathan Demme made The Manchurian Candidate in 2004. The original film was made in 1962 and is widely regarded as a classic.  Demme’s film didn’t have much critical acclaim, and at times it feels vaguely disconnected from itself. However, it’s definitely worth seeing…

What makes the film occasionally work are the performances. Denzel Washington is always value for money but look out for bits of brilliance from Jeffery Wright, Simon McBurney and Kimberly Elise who’s very good at times too.

Two other veterans turn in nice performances as well Meryl Streep is good and Bruno Ganz (adding a touch of real class) is a treat.

The film tends to drift, and doesn’t grab the way the best of Demme’s work usually did. But I think the real reason why the film doesn’t quite work is that when the original was made in 1962 this was explosive and scary stuff back then, not so much in 2004, and even less in 2018.

In the two theatres of politics and war now (in 2018) we’ll believe anything is possible.  And this story would make the news for a few hours at least (until the ticker at the bottom of the screen would move onto the next outrage).

Politics being manipulated? Soldiers lied to and brain washed? Cover-ups? Machiavellian manoeuvres by those in power? Blah, blah, blah, it’s happening every night live on your TV.  So, while the story of the film is relevant now, it’s not shocking or surprising anymore. The dystopian vision of the 1962 film is now almost part of our everyday lives, or our everyday lies.

I once worked with a producer, he was in charge of a large writing team of TV soap.  The team worked well together and were productive and a solid unit. The producer wanted to implement lots of change on the show. ‘Shake it up’ – so to speak. Like a football manager introducing a new style of play to a club that has seen success, and is reluctant to change.

So, the team resisted the producer’s changes. But not for too long, as the producer began a campaign, subtly, to divide and conquer – he began to focus on issues that would split the team – 50/50 – soon, instead of arguing with the producer about the changes he was making – the team argued with each other.

With the team split and at odds – the producer made changes to the show, that he wouldn’t normally have been able to. He made the changes, because the split team were too busy fighting amongst themselves.

Divide and conquer or divide and rule is a technique that goes back to ancient cultures and has been used by the Romans, the Macedonians, Napoleon, and is pretty much being used now all across the world. Brexit? Trump? The right versus the left? Let’s all argue, blah blah blah…

Keep an eye on what’s going on while we all rant at each other – are some thing’s being built, or laws introduced?  Are some things being dismantled?  Are borders changing? Are people being moved en masse? Are countries being destroyed?  Are races being scapegoated and demonised? Is race hate being stirred up? It’s all part of a play book that has been used many times in history, we’re too busy arguing with each other to realise…

The problem with Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate is that it doesn’t go far enough. The world is a different place from 1962 (when America welcomed migrants with open arms, and Britain was booming after going to war to save Europe (our Allies) a few decades earlier). Now we’re all divided – and waiting to be conquered.

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. He’s also a leading UK script consultant. You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. You can get in touch with Matthew on or hire him on Peopleperhour