“I don’t read political memoirs,” says the unnamed protagonist (Ewan McGregor) early in Roman Polanski’s latest film, The Ghost Writer. “Who does?” he asks, a perilous question considering he says this to the CEO of a publishing company who hires the man to ghostwrite the autobiography of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Yet it is likely a question on the minds of the film’s audience, the vast majority of whom could not care less about those stuffy memoirs that squirm their way into bookstores every few months on the wave of trumped-up hype manufactured by publishers to pad their losses for overpaying notable figures to tell their dull, politically softened life stories. Polanski addresses all of those issues in the same scene, and it is his ability to draw the amount of suspense he does from such an unseemly MacGuffin that confirms the director’s immense skill.
But let us back up a moment, to the film’s opening shots, a captivating story told without words. The first shot is extraordinary, showing a ferry pulling up to dock as its prow suddenly rises in the air, revealing the boat’s cargo hold. Such ferries are common, of course, but when does an audience -- or at least an American one -- see that on-screen? Polanski cuts to a shot inside the hold, where cars start up and headlights burn into life, save one SUV up front. The rest of the cars pass, some honking in frustration, while workers look around for the car’s owner. Then Polanski cuts to the car being towed, its alarm set off by the tow beam. Finally, Polanski cuts to a nearby beach, where a body washes up on shore. Without a single word to guide us, Polanski’s visuals create a mood, establish a story and hook an audience.
That’s what makes his feature such a terrific film, much less a thriller: it treats us like adults and allows the audiences to do what they love best with a mystery, put together their own solution. By cutting from that sequence to the Ghost meeting with the publishing executive, Polanski allows us to surmise that the man we saw on the beach was Lang’s previous ghostwriter, and he trusts us enough that he has his characters state this revelation with calm directness.
The Ghost Writer is a curious thriller: on one hand, it contains nothing but MacGuffins, means to a stylistic end to demonstrate the director’s skill set (think a more low-key Shutter Island), yet on the other it wishes to impart a number of political preoccupations. Just as the Ghost arrives in America to meet with Lang in a vacation retreat/locked-down facility on an island off the Massachusetts mainland, a news report announces that a former MP charged Lang with sending troops into Pakistan to capture four terrorist officials for the purposes of torture, which would make him a war criminal in the eyes of the International Criminal Court. Incidentally, the United States does not recognize the ICC, along with such luminous countries as Iraq and North Korea. The Ghost drafts a press release to help his new boss and Lang’s tiny contingent of followers – among them Lang’s politically savvy wife Ruth (Olivia Williams, channeling her unwavering ability to make the strongest man in the room look inadequate in comparison) and personal assistant (and mistress), Amelia (Kim Cattrall). Our poor writer can only wonder what he’s gotten himself into when Amelia offers a roundabout thanks for his assistance by saying, “You drafted the statement yesterday. That makes you an accomplice.”
The manner with which Polanski capitalizes on those vague implications, in terms of both the film’s thriller narrative and its connected politics, reveals the director’s more playful side. Amelia refuses to allow the Ghost to take the manuscript of Lang’s memoir outside of an office room, nor will she even let him load the digital copy on a flash drive to make his editing job easier. These precautions far exceed the concern for theft and illegal distribution, so the audience can only feel tension with the Ghost. Then Polanski plays a fast one on us when he suggests that a failed attempt to solve a computer password results in a security lockdown, when it actually was just a drill. The director loves to keep us on our guard, only for nothing significant to happen until we only realize why we were tense in retrospect.
That wryness makes its way into some of the dialogue, such as a drive through a massive protest against Lang’s accused actions, a protest that appears to be building into a mob. The Ghost hangs up on his agent when he spots this, saying, “Some peace protestors are about to kill me.” Occasionally, that irony and wit takes on a darker tone, such as the release of mutual sexual tension and bitterness between Ghost and Ruth, which culminates in the Ghost provoking Lang’s wife with, “Didn’t you want to be a proper politician?” to which Ruth viciously bites back, “Of course. Didn’t you want to be a proper writer?” That terse exchange highlights the heavy price the political wives pay: behind every great man may indeed be a great woman, but the fact remains that those women must linger behind and give up their own aspirations for the sake of their husbands. Just look at how much flak Hillary Clinton has received for daring to pursue her own political dreams, or how any discussion of Michelle Obama now primarily concerns her arms. Under the visuals and dialogue is a glockenspiel-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat, an unorthodox thriller soundtrack that gives the few moments of action greater surprise because we don’t know to expect them and lays a subtly creepy current beneath the rest of the film.
Visually, The Ghost Writer is beyond reproach. Polanski clearly boned up on his sociopolitical thrillers before shooting this, particularly the use of darkness in such classics as The Parallax View and The Insider. The Ghost Writer is certainly not as pitch-black aesthetically as, say, All the President’s Men, but no one shot is entirely lit. The skies are always a moody gray, and the artificial light appears in isolated pockets: lamps, streetlights and beacons illuminate small areas within the frame, but the space between them remains dark, creating an effect no less unsettling than pure blackness. Polanski compounds the lighting with his impeccable sense of placement, seen most easily in a shot of the Ghost sitting at his desk in the Cheneyesque bunker where he, Lang and the others stay. McGregor sits in the middle of the frame; to his left is a darkly painted wall, to the right a vast window overlooking the beach, the same beach where Ghost’s predecessor washed ashore. It can be difficult with those wall-sized windows to determine whether characters are standing inside the house or out in a number of shots; combined with the recurring image of the man outside sweeping a deck that never stays clean, this island retreat becomes something of a purgatorial trap, but one of many visual and structural plays on the more familiar definition of “ghost.”
Every shot, particularly the ones that linger briefly after the scene as a narrative entity ended, is suggestive, even when those shots add to character and not narrative (as if thrillers should make no time for character). Polanski places a poster in one of the estate rooms that reads, “Is love worth killing for?” which could be a reference to the justification of the accused crime, torture, through patriotism (love of country) or to the ever-tangling relationship threads between Ruth, Adam, Amelia, even The Ghost. Perhaps it applies to neither, or both. In that sense, the Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson), who may or may not have ties to Lang, stands as the perfect encapsulation of the film and its alternately sly and direct tones: We meet Paul Everett, whom we suspect based on the character’s setup and feel strengthen through Wilkinson’s almost imperceptibly threatening body language and vocal patterns, learn that he was important, only to find out he wasn’t before discovering that he did indeed matter, but not in the sense we suspected. Like everything else, the character manages to be terrifying without doing or saying anything to make him so disturbing. If I’m running rings around myself, I apologize, but it’s hard to detail just how effectively Polanski incessantly gets one over the audience without cluttering his film with too much narrative fluff.
The parallels Polanski finds, without ever resorting to Godwin’s Law, between the war crimes committed by the United States and its ever-dwindling Coalition of the Willing and those he experienced firsthand during the Holocaust to similar public indifference raise troubling questions about our national morality. What sets The Ghost Writer apart from a typical political screed though is its implications. What if, Polanski is asking us, America was so dead-set on secretly ruling the world through puppet leaders that the government placed friendly, malleable figureheads not only in contentious developing nations but in our most committed allies?
Politics emerges victorious in the end, as the need for image preservation outweigh the ideological outrage espoused earlier, the PR equivalent of “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” A twist follows this denouement that is unnecessary and one of those all-too-typical kiss-off reveals meant to give the audience one last jolt instead of revealing something interesting or thought provoking. However, what came before is so smart that we’ve already been provoked, and Polanski was nice enough to lay clues to the last reveal throughout the film instead of simply springing it without warning for the purposes of shock. (Also, the twist is sealed through an almost absurdly long but brilliant tracking shot that recalls both the tracking of the key in Hitchcock's Notorious and the classic gag with Sideshow Bob and the rakes in The Simpsons, albeit reversed so that the scene goes from tense to hilarious back to dramatic once more.) The final shot, though, is every bit as masterful and striking as the first, a beautiful and haunting picture that basically literalizes the title. The tacked-on last twist prevents me from labeling The Ghost Writer a masterpiece, but it is hard to imagine anyone else crafting a superior thriller this year that places such refreshing faith in its audience. How fitting it is that a film criticizing American (and British) arrogance and blindness treats its audience with more respect than Hollywood has shown us in, oh, God only knows how long.
P.S. I noticed as I watched the film that the American version dubbed over some of the curses, presumably to secure its PG-13 rating. Is this what we’ve come to? Polanski’s film has some damning things to say about the tainting of America and its allies’ consciences, but strong language is too harsh for our delicate sensibilities?