You can’t keep a good man down…and just for diplomacy’s sake, when referring to director Roman Polanski, let’s just change that to “you can’t keep a man down.” His latest film, THE GHOST WRITER, a somewhat political thriller based on the Robert Harris novel The Ghost, had some problems in post-production thanks to the Swiss police arresting the director as he entered Switzerland to collect a Lifetime Achievement award. This arrest was for his outstanding arrest warrant in the United States due to a 1977 unfortunate incident (read “crime”) with a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson’s house. However, trooper that he is, Polanski was able to complete the work from house arrest at his Swiss villa. Well played, Roman. Now if only the movie you completed was any good.
I say this is a “somewhat” political thriller in that it’s about the British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and it does not even try to mask the fact that he is a caricature of Tony Blair. However, whereas THE QUEEN portrayed Blair in such a positive light, Polanski goes a different route as he portrays Lang as an actor playing Prime Minister, running on boyish charms and a winsome smile, and as a puppet for the United States. The ghost writer of the title, however, doesn’t have an opinion on any of this. He is simply referred to as “The Ghost” and answers questions about his name as just that, and Ewan McGregor plays him not as a man interested in politics, but rather trying to make the man’s life interesting enough for people to shell out the money to want to read his story. That becomes an easier task as, while he is sent to their beach house (a Martha’s Vineyard/Hamptons type estate), he is accused of war crimes by his friend and former foreign minister Richard Rycart (played mysterious in his dealings by Robert Pugh) for allegedly sanctioning the kidnapping and torture of terror suspects and their deliverance to the CIA.
This is only a somewhat political thriller because there is also a death/murder that complicates the plot, trying to make it into a murder mystery as well. The writer previously working on the memoir is found dead, washed up on the beach, and that brings in Ewan McGregor’s character, but what was the real cause of his predecessor’s death? Olivia Williams plays Lang’s wife Ruth as the person who spends most time with The Ghost, upset over the path her husband has chosen, both politically and with his assistant, the always slutty and horribly fake-British Kim Cattrall. But there is something else behind this whole story, or so it would seem, and Polanski tries to make that the thriller portion of the film. He sends The Ghost out to investigate his predecessor’s death and meets ominous characters to thicken the plot, like Eli Wallach (looking like playing Tuco from THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY occured centuries ago) claiming the tide could not have washed up the writer’s body in that spot, or Tom Wilkinson playing an unknown and obscure Harvard professor, played like a Machiavellian puppetmaster with some ambiguously threatening lines (although he is not Vice Presidential, this is the Dick Cheney character). He has ties to a monster of a military defense corporation called Hatherton (yeah, a short stones-throw away from Halliburton), and how he fits into Lang’s life is the mystery The Ghost wants to discover. But at what cost? Ooooh.
I can understand the politics behind this movie, and it tries to mask that with a suspenseful plot, but the suspense falls flat for me, and while some may think it was cooked to a slow boil, I never got the boil part. It was just slow. Tom Wilkinson had the most interesting character and he comes in too late and is underused, while Olivia Williams plays with The Ghost Writer to the point we think this is simply a tryst movie for them at one point. McGregor plays his role fine, not too interested in the politics but smart enough to grasp them, but his investigation into the things Lang won’t tell him isn’t played well enough, as things just kind of fall into his lap. But my biggest problem is the misuse of Pierce Brosnan. Okay, you want to comment on Tony Blair and your disagreement with his policies in cooperation with America’s war on terror. That’s fine. But don’t take Thomas Crown down as you do it. This is a guy that can play the cool, master of the universe-type who could have made an incredibly interesting character and he’s reduced to a grinning buffoon (grinning at one point next to a not-even-thinly-veiled Condi Rice character). It’s tantamount to putting Baby in the corner. Nobody does it. But I guess Roman Polanski thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Oh, wait…