A friends of mine works as a rape crisis first-responder, and when I told her I was going to see The Ghost Writer (2010), Roman Polanski's new film, she said "Have a good time. I won't be seeing it." She views Polanski only as a rapist--with some justification, I might add--and boycotts Polanski's movies on general principles. For the most part, I can't argue with her, but I still go see Polanski movies myself. I justify this to myself by noting that more than a hundred people work on most movies, so it's not an individual enterprise like painting or music. I usually wind up having to re-think that position after I see a given movie. It's almost impossible to ignore the personal elements of Polanski's own biography in his films, and this one is no different.
The story here revolves around a ghost writer hired to doctor the memoirs of Adam Lang, a British Prime Minister whose previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances. During the course of writing those memoirs, Lang comes under indictment by The Hague for ordering the kidnapping, rendition, and torture of terrorist suspects on behalf of the Americans. Meanwhile, the ghost begins to piece together his predecessor's work (and the reasons for his death).
The parallels to Tony Blair are unmistakable, and I'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to point to the irony of Polanski making a film about a character who can't leave the United States for fear of arrest, which is a weird mirror image of his own situation prior to his recent arrest in Switzerland. As I said, you can't escape his biography in his movies.
The cast in this movie is uniformly excellent, and Polanski himself is in fine form. This is the kind of thriller he seemed born to make in his heyday. It reminds me of one of his "apartment" movies writ large, but it also has the merciless clockwork precision (and menace) of Chinatown. It's the kind of thriller that Hollywood itself is no longer interested in, one in which there are no action sequences as such, but in which danger is always elided. There's a shot of a woman standing in the background on a telephone in this movie, and when we hear a snippet of what she's saying, we know that only bad things are going to happen. Polanski always did paranoia well. This has a terrific cast, by the way, with Ewan McGregor as the ghost and Pierce Brosnan as Lang, and Tom Wilkinson, Kim Catrall, Olivia Williams, and even Eli Wallach in significant supporting roles. Brosnan, in particular, always surprises me in these kinds of roles. Add this to his resume along with The Tailor of Panama and The Matador as another anti-Bond performance. He's good at tired rage. If I have a quibble with the film qua film, it's that in order to set up its pessimistic ending, it requires the ghost to do something pretty stupid. But it's a small detail in a film that otherwise turns the screws tight. Plus, the final image is worth the contrivance.
I mentioned earlier that the parallels to Tony Blair are unmistakable, and I'd like to expand on that a bit. Amid all the ink spilled on movies about the Iraq war itself and their relative box office failure, one thing that seems to fly under the radar is the way that the war influences movies of all kinds, not just war movies. Examples would include movies as diverse as Dawn of the Dead and Iron Man. This movie is more overt than most, but it's still a smuggler, and a harshly critical one, at that. The war, the film tells us in the subtext, has exacerbated the sociopathic tendencies of intelligence agents and national security. It has created merry little fascists out of even the best intentioned of politicos.
In any event, what we have here is one of those caustic genre exercises that acts as a sly sociological commentary. They don't make enough of these these days. Maybe one day soon, one will be made by a director to whom I won't have to grant Orwell's benefit of clergy to enjoy.