Review: “The Ghost Writer” (2010)
WARNING: THROWBACK SPOILERS
Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is an expert piece of filmmaking that doesn't matter. It’s fun, smart, adult, and certain shots are stunning, but it’s also a throwback, and the elements of its throwback don’t completely mesh. In tone it’s a throwback to the moody Hitchcockian thriller of the 1950s, in content it’s a throwback to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, but in setting it’s a throwback to just a few years ago, to the suffocating stupidity of the George W. Bush years, and this is the part that doesn’t mesh. Or maybe nothing feels as old as that which has just left us—like Condoleezza Rice. Or maybe I was merely disappointed with the ending.
The film begins in the rain and never loses its chill. A ferry docks in a downpour and cars file out. Except one. It remains ominously unclaimed. Eventually, car alarm ringing in protest, it’s towed away. Great cinematic shorthand. Something’s amiss. Someone’s missing.
Turns out a writer has died and needs to be replaced. He’s been ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the Tony Blairish, former British prime minister who sided with the U.S. in all of its ill-conceived foreign adventures, and is now living out his days in disgrace in a Martha’s Vineyard-type island off the coast of Massachusetts. But he’s been paid $10 million for his memoirs, and the publishing house needs to get something out, and so another ghost, known in the credits simply as the Ghost (Ewan McGregor), is hired.
He takes the job reluctantly—because a slick publishing-house friend, Rick Ricardelli (John Bernthal), wants him to, and because an editor who rejected one of the Ghost’s previous books, doesn’t. But he gets the job, truly, because he’s an honest man in the dishonest world of business and politics. There’s a great, early scene where he tells the publishing house president, John Maddox (a shockingly good, shaved-bald Jim Belushi), that not only doesn’t he read political memoirs but no one reads political memoirs. Which is exactly why they need him: to appeal to all of those readers who don’t read political memoirs. Which is everyone.
Things go downhill quickly. Ten minutes after the meeting, he’s mugged. At Heathrow, still smarting, he watches news reports about how Lang, as prime minister, authorized the rendition of four British nationals, Muslims, who were subsequently tortured, and one of whom died, in U.S. custody. He phones Ricardelli: “What have you gotten me into?”
The Lang complex on the island, run by Lang’s assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), is gated and guarded. There are disapproving Asian housekeepers and an air of officiousness and unreality. The Writer is allowed this space. He must sign these NDAs. Then he’s placed into a room that includes, on the right half of its outer wall, a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over bleak, grassy dunes. It’s as if the room is half inside and half out. It’s like something out of a dream.
The Writer, poor bastard, groans over the 600-page manuscript his predecessor left him: its long, dull beginning on the history of the Langs in Scotland; its facile observations on recent, tragic events (“The American president was much taller than I expected.”). When Lang finally arrives, via private Hatherton (read: Halliburton) jet, the Writer tries to cut through the bullshit and make him understandable. At Cambridge, in the 1970s, Lang wanted to be an actor. Why suddenly politics? Because, Lang says, his future wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), appeared at his door one day, politicking, and he fell in love. Ah ha! The Writer has his lead. But Lang keeps shooing him away from more interesting areas of the story and back toward the bullshit. He wants the book to be noble and empty. Brosnan gives Lang the air of someone who was once important and respected, and is now unimportant and disgraced, and he doesn’t quite know why. He gives him the air of someone who has to pretend too much in public and too little in private.
Even as the Writer is trying to decide what Lang’s story is, the story keeps changing. A former British secretary, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), whom Lang once fired, is bringing charges against him before the Hague on the rendition matter, and the Writer is corralled into drafting a response, which, with a mixture of vanity and horror, he hears Lang repeat that night on TV. Protesters and picketers arrive outside the gates. The press descends and takes over the local Inn, where the Writer has been staying, and he is forced to take his predecessor’s room at the Lang estate.
All this time, in a nice touch, he’s been treating anything belonging to his predecessor with the held-in-breath of the hypochondriac. He doesn’t want to catch what his predecessor caught. But he does. He discovers photos indicating that Lang lied about when he entered politics. He discovers a phone number among his predecessor’s effects: Robert Rycart’s. An old timer on the island (a nearly 100-yearold Eli Wallach!) tells him that, given island currents, the original ghost writer’s body could never have washed up where it did. And, in one of the greatest uses of modern technology in a traditional genre, the Writer tracks his predecessor’s last visit via his car’s GPS. It takes him to the mainland and the home of a Harvard professor, Paul Emmett (a gloriously insufferable Tom Wilkinson), who knew Lang at Cambridge in the 1970s but denies he knew Lang at Cambridge. Online, he reads rumors that Emmett has ties to the CIA, and, coupled with Lang’s acquiescence to U.S. policy, he puts two and two together. The former British PM is a CIA mole! But where’s the evidence? In a clandestine meeting, Rycart tells him that the original ghost put the answer in the beginning of the memoir; the Writer can’t find it. Meanwhile, the closer he gets to an answer, the closer an answer gets to him.
This is a movie about as well-made as movies can be made. The script, by novelist Robert Harris and Polanski, is wonderful. At one point Amelia asks the Writer how the Inn is and he responds, “Monastic.” “That’s alright,” she says. “No distractions.” Then he follows her ass upstairs to his workroom. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment but this is an altogether unsexy film. Lang is obviously having an affair with Amelia, and everyone, particularly his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who compares her husband’s banishment to Napoleon’s on Elba, knows it. One evening Ruth winds up in the Writer’s bed. It’s positively icky. It may be the least sexy affair between two good-looking actors in cinematic history.
Polanski, master of the off-kilter and unnerving, who partly edited the film from his prison in Switzerland, gets all of the details right. I’m still thinking about the sense of vulnerability McGregor displays as he’s being frisked by a government agent, ultimately benign, in a tiny hotel room. But the ending does disservice to the rest. The big reveal after Lang is assassinated by a protester? Prof. Emmett did recruit a mole at Cambridge in the 1970s: Lang’s wife, Ruth. The clues are in the first word of every chapter of the original manuscript, which the Writer figures out at the book party for his scaled-down version. And what does he do with this information? He tells Ruth, of course. Who, of course, tells Emmett. The Writer then walks outside, clutching the original manuscript, and can’t hail a cab. He walks out of frame and a car barrels by. Polanski holds the camera as we hear a crash, and, after a moment, papers, the last evidence of Ruth’s duplicity, and the real reason for Great Britain's poodleish behavior, flutter by like snowflakes and are scattered to the four winds.
That’s a great final shot. But how stupid can the Writer be? He tells Ruth? And no one else? And isn’t that reveal, via the first word in each chapter, rather facile?
In the 1970s, and in the political thrillers of the 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the left for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in everything. In the 2000s, the CIA was viewed as the automatic villain of the right for immorally, conspiratorially involving itself in nothing. Bushies outed CIA agents. That’s how crazy things got.
Here, the CIA, FBI and the faux-Bush administration all work together in super-smart, super-efficient fashion. Thought becomes action. As soon as perceived enemies appear they are struck down. One ponders the sad history of this past decade, particularly before and after 9/11, and thinks: Right.