Film Review #222: The Ghost Writer
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan,Olivia Williams, Kim Catrall, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkenson, Eli Wallach
“I’m your ghost,” says Ewen McGregor’s unnamed ghost writer to ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) when they meet on the tarmac at the Edgartown Airport on Martha’s Vineyard. Lang, who has just arrived by private jet and is later described as having "never had a thought in his pretty head,” looks like he’s just emerged from a night’s sleep and a shower. McGregor’s writer – weary, rumpled, fading fast from his own jet-lag, easy to underestimate and actually looking a bit insubstantial – has been dragged along to meet Lang on this appropriately dark and stormy night by Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). Lang pauses a beat, doesn’t quite grasp his meaning. Ruth Lang rescues the moment, deftly unsnags Lang’s puzzlement by re-casting the writer’s fairly straightforward self-introduction, at his expense, as a lame attempt at humor – “He’s not usually so humorous” – allowing them all to move on.
Of course it turns out she’s been managing such moments throughout Lang’s whole career in public life, since their mid-70s student days at Cambridge. Now he’s ensconced in his publisher’s beachfront vacation compound, trying to finish an overdue memoir between sorties out on a lecture tour and a just-unfolding crisis of war crimes accusations that brings angry protesters and media frenzy to the compound’s gate. McGregor’s writer steps into this situation to replace the first ghost, a long-time loyal aide who’s washed up on the beach.
More than a few reviewers have noted that Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island and Roman Polanksi’s The Ghost Writer opened on the same weekend in US commercial release last month, and a couple have admitted they even wished they could say Scorcese’s was the better film. One went so far as to call The Ghost Writer – reluctantly, grudgingly – “even, at moments, wise.” Shutter Island got here right away – reminding me of the younger Scorcese whom I suspected had an evil twin who directed the clunker scenes sandwiched in between the brilliant ones – but Polanksi’s film has just pulled into Carousel's multiplex this past Friday. And perhaps because The Ghost Writer is what Roger Ebert calls “a Well-Made Film,” the notion that it might be “about” something surfaces quietly and later. Beyond being an exceptionally well-executed and stylish political thriller, an obvious what-if speculation on former British PM Tony Blair’s connections with the CIA and the Bush White House torture policies, and quite possibly also a comment on Polanski’s own legal troubles and exile from US soil, The Ghost Writer is a film of ideas. Polanski directs from a script he wrote with Robert Harris that adapts Harris’ own novel – and makes more of “the ghost in the machine” than the ready catch-phrase that term has has lately been reduced to.
Sara Vikomerson used that phrase upon The Ghost Writer's release last month to title her New York Observer review of the film, but she used it there as it’s often used, having seeped into the culture, detached from its source – a ready, somehow familiar phrase, a multi-purpose and archly allusive near-pun that, depending on placement and inflection, evokes sarcasm, dismissal or jaded disbelief. Thus have Toyota’s efforts to account for the Prius’ sudden acceleration problems been dubbed derisively as the car-maker’s search for the “ghost in the machine.” It provides a title for a new book just coming out on the stock market’s unexplained swerves. The phrase appears in films like Brazil and I, Robot, and titles episodes in television series over the past few years as diverse of Inspector Morse, X-Files, Medium, Stargate Atlantis, Ghost Whisperer, and the new Caprica.
If we think of its source much as all, we probably go back only about half-way, to 1981 and the British rock group The Police, whose fourth album was a bleak commentary on modern political and technological culture. The Police’s Sting was an avid reader of the writer Arthur Koestler. In 1967 Koestler used the term to title his 1967 book and explore the idea that modern consciousness and higher brain functions are built atop more primitive, still working parts of the brain, parts that our “higher” selves can’t fully regulate and contain, which accounts for our self-destructive impulses and behavior, and these for rampant violence and paranoia, which Polanski often makes the subject of his films. Koestler himself – and if you pick up the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, there’s a lengthy review of a new biography – took the term from Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind, in which he rejected the persistent and often trouble-provoking Western idea of a mind-body split arising from Rene Descartes’ conviction that only the mind animated the otherwise merely mechanical body.
You absolutely do not need this information to take great pleasure from Polanski’s film. The riveting scene near the end where a note from the ghost writer to Ruth Lang passes from hand to hand across a crowded scene has gotten much attention, but that patiently, precisely built tension is evident throughout and has been much commented upon. There is the mordant Polanski wit; Lang's former foreign secretary tells the ghost writer at one point, "They can't drown two ghost writers - you're not kittens!" There are the excellent performances that Polanski coaxes from even middling actors, from McGregor’s writer turned sleuth, to Brosnan as the wind-up politician that many have sought to animate, to Kim Cattral as his executive assistant, to the cameos – Tim Hutton as Lang’s lawyer, Tom Wilkinson as the shady US academic Paul Emmett, and even a small but striking cameo from a nearly unrecognizable 94-year-old Eli Wallach. Olivia Williams’ Ruth Lang is the most complex portrayal and hopefully we’ll see much more of her.
But “the ghost in the machine” as a set of persisting ideas fills in the brooding form of Polanksi’s film and provides its most resonant and variant images, making it more than a well-made thriller. These range from the stark gray of the rainy weather and the chilly modernist house that itself performs like a machine – during a security check the house locks itself down, metal doors plunging over the floor-to-ceiling windows and sirens blaring – to the BMW’s GPS system whose disembodied voice provides the ghost writer with directions that unlock the story's secret, to the machines that Lang’s very persona and by extension his organization and the networks that envelop him have become.
This appeared in the March 25, 2010 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle.