Denzel Washington, who anchored Demme’s 1993 drama “Philadelphia” and has been a familiar face in military thrillers (including “The Siege” and “Courage Under Fire“), stars as Captain Bennett “Ben” Marco, commander of an abducted and brainwashed Gulf War combat unit that included Lt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Ben comes to believe that something is off about his own sense of what happened overseas, and hopes that Raymond can help him unlock the mystery.
Perhaps assuming that anybody seeing this film will have already Googled the original, the filmmakers junk any pretense of mystery and quickly establish that the abducted soldiers are pawns in a shadowy conspiracy. The goal is to transform Raymond, a stick-in-the-mud officer and mediocre soldier, into a Congressional Medal of Honor winner by fabricating heroic details about his war service and having the men in his unit robotically repeat them; wait a few years; then plant Shaw (who has become a Congressman after the war) on the vice presidential ticket of a major political party.
The original film built a layer cake of anxiety and fear atop Raymond’s phony war record, making him a pawn in an right-wing, McCarthy-esque scheme that somehow involved actual Russian and Chinese operatives. The bad guys here are more earthbound: a giant military contractor that’s basically Halliburton, a company deals in engineering, petroleum, mercenary services, military prison cells, internment camps, and other goods and services related to war. In 2003, the company was awarded a $7 billion, no-bid Iraq War contract despite the fact that the sitting US Vice President, Dick Cheney, had been on the company’s board of directors just three years earlier. A similar but much larger company in the film, Manchurian Global, appears have its tentacles in every part of the world economy, including journalism (exposition is often conveyed via snippets of inflammatory right wing “news,” on a cable channel that’s blatantly modeled on then eight-year-old Fox News Channel).
Although the film loses suspense and mystery by giving us the gist of the story up front, it gains dramatic power. Front-loading plot lets it concentrates on what happens to the major characters psychologically and emotionally as they try to prove what they know is happening to them, then expose the wrongdoers. It’s a rough, often tragic road from the get-go. Ben is a working class guy who—like the other survivors of a unit decimated by suicides and mysterious deaths—seems to be drifting through life, getting along as best he can, but often wondering why he can’t seem to get anything meaningful accomplished and keeps having the same dream every night. Raymond is living a more posh, shielded life—he’s the only son of former senator Eleanor Prentiss (Meryl Streep, channeling Hilary Clinton by way of Lady Macbeth), and has been groomed since birth to do his mother’s bidding—but he’s a wreck as well, floating through life with a pasty, sad grin, and trying to do a convincing impression of a person who can mingle at a party without wanting to throw up.