Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ghost Writer: Liberal Paranoia Makes Entertaining Thriller

Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer packages up the liberal paranoia of the Bush era into a tightly wrought little thriller about a freelance writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who's hired to ghostwrite the biography of ex British Prime Minister Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan), a Labour party standard-bearer who was seemingly all too willing to go along with America's war in the middle East and anti-terrorism policies of secret rendition (read: Tony Blair).

What makes the story work is Polanski's willingness to submerge the questionable politics of the story and focus on the atmospherics of the thriller. McGregor's character is charmed into reluctantly taking the position of ghost writer on Lang's biography after Lang's first writer - a loyal assistant - dies in a mysterious boat accident off the shore of the Martha's Vinyard island where Lang and his party have decamped. The opening shots show a lone BMW wagon sitting on a commuter boat after all the other cars have departed, it's driver ominously missing. Polanski gives the scene all the foreboding of Scorsese's Shutter Island, all foghorns and clanking orchestra. Clearly this was no "accident" and McGregor has put himself in mortal danger as he inevitably begins to uncover the clues that led to his former colleague's demise.

It may amuse you to find McGregor's character all too willing to continuously make the unwise decisions that put his life in further danger - such as going to bed with Lang's wife, Ruth - an unfulfilled political "widow" who bedevils her husband with her demands and who's brooding intelligence is a powerful seductive force for the bemused ghost writer. Or agreeing to meet outside a dark, out-of-the-way hotel with a "deep throat" operative who claims to have the goods on Lang. Or confronting one of Lang's old Harvard professors, a potential CIA operative, with claims that Lang has been compromised by the agency.

In each of these events, The Ghost travels ineluctably down the road that puts him into the position to be hunted, just like his predecessor. Polanski infuses enough tension (and lovely, raining black-and-white character of the bleak New England coast) into these scenes that you forget that McGregor is being such an ass (he could, at any point, easily share his information with some authorities): instead, you find yourself eager, like McGregor, to unravel the mystery of what it is the CIA is desperately trying to protect about Lang. There's also enough character in Lang's entourage to entertain us along the way - thanks to the amusing prissiness of Lang's factotum, Kim Cattrall, who adds a spicy bit of gold-hearted unctuousness in the cold, modernist beach house that is the Lang's redoubt.

McGregor and Brosnan also deserve a lot of the credit for keeping this fable going: each man brings a kind of intellectual, distracted air to their performance - going head to head with their intimacies and suspicions - yet they complement each other nicely, with McGregor ultimately the charming new seducer and Brosnan the defensive old guard (especially when it comes to the affections of the pivotal Ruth).

In the end, the ghost writer's propensity for bad decision making leads us to a preposterous confrontation (and rather flippant end to our story), but in the intervening hour and a half, Polanski does a great job of delivering a political thriller. We mostly avoid stultifying political debates about torture and the war on terror (although Brosnan does deliver a bang-up oratory at a key moment, holding the film's crucial mystery together). Although the underlying paranoid proposition about a compromised British leader may be preposterous (the idea that a Labour leader could only be anti-terrorism if the CIA were pulling his strings comes out of a leftist paranoid worldview as Manichian as the Tea Partier's right-wing version), for those who enjoy a good bookish political yarn, or a lighthearted derivation of The Man Who Knew Too Much crossed with Three Days of the Condor, the movie delivers the goods.

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