What a week! Again.
Now it's the weekend. Time for a movie. In the slogan of the moment, might you want to "lean in" and see a meaty political thriller? If so The Ghost Writer has a cheery topicality; corruption at the highest levels of British government. Intrigue. Perhaps murder.
Gotta be fiction? Not necessarily. As a friend noted, the murder of respectable people by respectable people didn’t end with Shakespeare. But let's not argue: It is fiction, fiction with a point, delivered with great verve by one of the best directors.
Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris, it’s the story of a writer who’s never named. That’s appropriate; his skill is writing the memoirs of celebrities. He’s fast. And good: The last book he ghosted, “He Came, He Sawed, He Conquered,” the memoirs of a magician, raced to the top of the best-seller list. Now he’s called in to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, former British Prime Minister. He has just a month to turn the manuscript in.
Consider how Harris and Polanski launch the story. The book and movie begin on the ferry, crossing to Martha’s Vineyard on a blustery winter’s day. The ferry reaches the dock, empties. Except for one car. Where is the driver? It’s a mystery. It’s also great movie making.
We quickly learn about that car and its driver. Lang has been holed up in a beach house on the Vineyard. And, coming across on the ferry one night, Michael McAra, Lang's ghostwriter and long-time aide, went overboard and drowned. A suicide?
Who's who in the cast? The former Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, is a stand-in for Tony Blair. His attractive, chilly wife is a version of Cherie Blair. And the fresh trouble Adam Lang is in, allegations that he helped the CIA kidnap four Pakistani terrorists, the sort of thing that The Hague might consider a war crime, isn’t unbelievable, at least in England.
For the ghostwriter, these charges couldn’t come at a worse time. Lang is angry and distracted; instead of working on the book, he races down to Washington for a photo op with the American Secretary of State, a woman who just happens to be African-American. Slowly, painfully, the ghost begins to make connections between Lang’s new problems and McAra’s death. And the tension mounts…
If you are seeing parallels between The Ghost Writer and Polanski’s own situation - a man accused of terrible crimes, living in exile, trying to clear his name-give yourself ten easy points. If you see a connection to Chinatown a less than professional detective, way over his head, stumbles into a conspiracy so corrupt he’s unprepared to recognize it, give yourself ten more. (Extra-point question: The Asian man sweeping the decks at Lang’s beach house what’s his equivalent in Chinatown?)
The film making is confident, organic, and efficient at the highest level. Although Polanski is now 77, the director who made Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist still has his A-game. In an interview, Pierce Brosnan expresses his admiration:
“The lens was never far from his hand. I sat on the back of the camera one day…His viewfinder was burnished with time, the numbers were worn away and they were all penciled in on bits of gaffer tape…He’d be setting the camera up and having a private conversation with himself. You’d be going for the take and he’d be, ‘No, no, stop, no,’ and then, ‘Give me the camera, I want the camera, the fucking camera.’ He could freak some people out. But that was his passion.”
The Ghost Writer is fun and provocative and adult. It reminds us that a thrilling film can be made in a living room, that a sharp conversation can be as deadly as a bullet, that music and cinematography don’t have to assault the ear or poke you in the eye to be thrilling. How old-fashioned. How refreshing.