The Ghost Writer (2010)
Ewan McGregor (Angels & Demons, Big Fish) stars as The Ghost (no, he never earns a name even in the closing credits). He’s an expert ghost writer for best-selling autobiographies, and his services have been enlisted for his biggest client yet. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is a former British prime minister currently embroiled in a legal scandal. He’s being accused of handing over British citizens to the United States to be tortured, all in the name of the War on Terror. Lang and his wife (Olivia Williams) have holed up in a fabulous house along Cape Cod, hiding from swarms of international media. The book’s due date is soon approaching and nobody is really pleased with the first draft. Mike, the first ghost writer, can’t help with the revisions on account that his abandoned car was discovered on a Massachusetts ferry and his body washed ashore the next day. The Ghost begins to suspect that Mike somehow stumbled across some very potent and damaging information, and the secrets are hidden somewhere in that manuscript.
Consider me pleasantly surprised at how effective this small little political thriller turned out to be. It doesn’t have an overworked narrative agenda, but the few things it does it does quite well. Firstly, it’s a pleasure for a thriller to actually make the audience feel as paranoid as the main character. He treats the idea of a conspiracy as nonsense to begin with, but then he starts to second-guess that car traveling behind. What about that guy two blocks down talking to himself? The screenplay achieves a palpable sense of paranoia, nicely placing you in the emotional state of our lead. You may run questions through your head as well, wondering who can ultimately be trusted, who to turn to next, what information to divulge and to whom, whether to get into the mysterious car or not. The best “thriller” moment is the Ghost waiting in his car and driving for cover, but even that is done in a style that doesn’t feel ripped from an action blockbuster. I’ve watched so many thrillers that get by on studious attention to the routines of the genre, and while The Ghost Writer doesn’t exactly break new ground, the movie keeps the threat of danger real. Actually, on that very note, The Ghost Writer does something unexpected, which is that it begins to lull you into a false sense of security or complacency, and then it robs you of that sense of security in the end. I enjoyed the film’s climax, though even at my screening I heard dissatisfied grumbles on the way out.
The movie is without exchanges of gunfire, explosions, or any nefarious, shadowy individual pressing a red button and laughing maniacally. The Ghost Writer exists in a world very similar to our own. It’s a conspiracy thriller in the same vein as The Constant Gardener or Michael Clayton. The menace is far more subdued; the danger getting tighter as we push forward yet the threat feels deceptively relaxed. It’s the kind of conspiracy thriller that feels like a workable conspiracy, which means that most of the dirty work is implied or done behind the scenes. This means that you have to work a little harder to engage with The Ghost Writer because it chooses not to spell out its litany of danger and those who are dangerous, but it also makes for a more effective experience of paranoia. The film even seems to follow this edict in its visual presentation. The movie has an eerie cool feel to it thanks to the downcast, icy blue-hued cinematography and sleek, sparse art direction, suggesting something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on what. It’s also continuously raining, a favorite, if overused, cinematic metaphor.
The Ghost Writer intelligently explores a current international imbroglio, making the political crisis relevant without reaching for a soapbox. The politics of torture is a topic that doesn’t appear to be disappearing any time soon. Torture also provides a fine, morally queasy subject matter to dive into and pick apart. Willful involvement in torture presents several ethical challenges for a character (unless you’re Jack Bauer), which can prove to be a meaty area to watch gifted actors chew over all that rueful decision-making and hand wringing. But alas, this is not a message movie like the slew of 2007 Iraq/torture films that fell flat, mostly because those lukewarm-to-awful movies felt a message supplanted entertainment. The Ghost Writer is a piece of entertainment first, an adult and a cerebral movie that has a striking sense of humor. The dialogue is surprisingly quippy, full of great one-liners amidst all the peril and uncertainty. So while the movie has some points about global politics, ownership and responsibility, the role of media and rewriting history, the movie doesn’t commit entertainment suicide trying to service a message.
Personally, I found the behind-the-scenes work of a ghost writer to be just as interesting, if not more so, than the conspiracy unraveling. The editing process can be fascinating for such a high profile political leader; deciding what moments to emphasize, what moments to forget, what narrative will be fashioned to make sure that a politician comes out on top, spiting his enemies without looking bitter. It’s a delicate balancing act and a precarious responsibility for the ghost writer, controlling a human beings life story for the annuls of mass market history. And these ghost writers get no recognition, even after mimicking the speaking/writing styles of their subject, and these are often subjects who are used to having their thoughts and opinions groomed, tested, and prepared by others, so what difference does their autobiographies make? I believe Sarah Palin could not write her own name without the aid of a ghost writer and/or a bevy of trained subordinates. While this storyline pretty much expectantly falls by the wayside once the conspiracy stuff emerges, I felt that the movie did a respectable service to honor ghost writers everywhere (Palin’s own ghost writer was Lynn Vincent).
The cast all seemed to dig their juicy roles, judging from the performances. Brosnan and Williams are obviously playing versions of Tony and Cherie Blair, so it’s fun to watch both actors enjoy their thinly veiled roles. Brosnan (Mamma Mia) is terrific and Williams (An Education) has this disquieting calm about her that only breaks in a handful of telling moments. Many actors have these small, sometimes one-scene, parts but they make the most of them. Kim Cattrall is spunky as Lang’s loyal personal assistant (her accent isn’t flawless, but that alone is better than her work in the Sex and the City movie). Tom Wilkinson (Duplicity) also shows up as an Ivy League professor with a mysterious background, and the man knows exactly how to play a treacherous gentleman. You may be shocked to see a bald-headed, bulldog-looking Jim Belushi appear on screen, and he’s good too as a publishing exec with no patience for niceties. But the movie is McGregor’s and the actor does not disappoint. It’s pleasing to watch his character transform from observer to actor. He’s a charismatic guy that speaks his mind and a worthy hero to root for.
And it took until the final paragraph for me to mention director Roman Polanski’s current legal woes. The Ghost Writer was Polanski’s last film he directed before being obtained by Swiss authorities and set to be expedited back to California for a 30-year-old rape charge. It’s hard not to read somewhat into the premise: a man hiding from authorities with a charge hanging over his head. This may well prove to be the last film we’ll see from the 77-year-old director judging from the pending legal issues. If it does indeed serve as the last piece in the career of a talented director, it will at least be a high point. At least Polanski’s last film wasn’t the abominable Ninth Gate.
Nate’s Grade: B+