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The Ghost Writer - 2010

Director: Roman Polanski
Run Time: 128 minutes

by Steve Labinski

Tightly paced and well acted, The Ghost Writer is Roman Polanski's most recent movie thriller which just barely reached the finish line before the director's own recent legal troubles.

In the film, Ewan McGregor plays a freelance writer hired to ghost write the memoirs of a recently retired British Prime Minister, played with a giddy anguish by Pierce Brosnan. In time, McGregor ends up digging up ghosts from the his subject's past, pushing him down a trail of increasingly dangerous discovery.

This movie will probably not play well in the United States, and not just because of Polanski's own ghosts from his past. The story's motivation reveals a standard issue collection of 20th century conspiracy theories to world power.

McGregor unearths a world where events are decided by a shadow organization. World events are decided by a shadow organization organized by the military-industrial complex. (Read: Halliburton) Profit is controlled through powerful corporate multinationals and enforced by the unaccountable guns of the CIA.

These kinds of plots already litter the Internet fingering the secretive Bilderburger Group, George H.W. Bush's cryptic New World Order, or the age-old Masons.

On that level, the movie is neutered turning it essentially into a European-flavored rehash of plot threads from TV's X-Files episodes. It would not have been totally out of order to see the Cigarette Smoking Man appearing at some point with a diabolical warning for McGregor.

Looking for quick and easy money, McGregor takes the job and flies to Brosnan's vacation spot on a remote New England island. The once proud world leader is now holed up in a modern, rich looking house that offers the warmth Napoleon must have felt on Elba.

Events turn when the International Criminal Court puts the Prime Minister under pressure accusing him as an accomplice to CIA torture (water boarding) during the Iraq war. Since the United States does not recognize the court's legal authority, he's suddenly stuck blowing in the media's wind, protected in naked view by the American government. These plot threads are difficult to take seriously.

The screenplay was co-written by Polanski along with Robert Harris, adapting it from his book, The Ghost. Harris left a reporting career with the BBC as he turned increasingly critical of Tony Blair and the War in Iraq.

It doesn't help the film now that these well-worn canards actually have recently undergone a high profile investigative airing in Britain with Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw resolutely demonstrating that their decisions, whether you agree with them or not, were resolute based on their own desire to protect the country, and that they are not chess pieces moved around by the New World Order. But this is fiction, not non-fiction, and it's the overall drama that makes The Ghost Writer work.

Polanski's Reality TV

Back in the early nineties, Woody Allen's own public trial by fire made headlines when he separated from long-time companion Mia Farrow to ultimately marry Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Precisely during all of this, the film Allen had been working on, Husbands and Wives, went into release in movie theaters.

As it turned out, the high-strung movie starring Allen and Farrow playing fictitious characters splitting up over a younger woman brought a major new dimension to everything happening in their personal lives. Going from watching the news to watching many of these same kinds of events in a large, darkened movie theater eerily brought insight into the filmmaker's inner life, whether the audience thought seeing all of this was too much information or not. This was reality television before its official invention.

Likewise, in The Ghost Writer it is eerie watching Bosnian suddenly marooned in a foreign country, backed into a life of exile by the pincers of an ambitious criminal court. Are we watching Polanski's personal life unfold? Is Polanski expressing sympathy for this man and how should McGregor's character and the audience react towards him?

Polanski's direction and pacing in this thriller is excellent, expertly following McGregor's careful path down the secret trail of breadcrumbs. The movie easily creates and holds one's interest throughout its entire 128 minutes.

McGregor has evolved into a first class actor. He maintains the perfect frequency to the very end, so good that the final film would not have worked so well otherwise. Polanski even coaxes an impressive performance out of Kim Cattrall playing Brosnan's personal secretary.

Polanski uses many of his signature techniques recognizable from his 1974 masterwork, Chinatown. We see an everyman stumbling into what at first glance appears to be an incidental murder, but turns out to be a deliberate coverup. But Chinatown ends very differently.

We can see how the subsequent forty years has changed Polanski's world view. Now, it is not just a few powerful bad apples behind the scenes, but instead it's the United States holding the world hostage with its idology and power. Perhaps Polanski is resigned to seeing himself as part of the movie's dark ending.

Don't expect The Ghost Writer to maintain the timeless gravity of Chinatown. Hitchcock's North By Northwest is a political intrigue thriller similarly driven by the same plot device. It stays exciting today because Hitchcock saw some good in the world.

Even when Stanley Kubrick sneaks Tom Cruise into a world of forbidden, dangerous secrets in Eyes Wide Shut, he concludes that people could be redeemed despite the lurid elements of society.

The Ghost Writer eventually succumbs to its own dark views of human nature. These final statements are what will seal the long-term fate of this movie, and probably for Polanski as well.

Main Cast:

  • Ewan McGregor ... The Ghost
  • Jon Bernthal ... Rick Ricardelli
  • Kim Cattrall ... Amelia Bly
  • Pierce Brosnan ... Adam Lang
  • Tim Preece ... Roy
  • James Belushi ... John Maddox
  • Olivia Williams ... Ruth Lang
  • Timothy Hutton ... Sidney Kroll
  • Tom Wilkinson ... Paul Emmett
  • Eli Wallach ... Vineyard old man


Release Date: February 19, 2010 (USA), February 12, 2010 (Berlin International Film Festival), February 18, 2010 (Germany), February 19, 2010 (Austria)

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