Roman Polanski's new thriller The Ghost Writer is about the way political images are manufactured. The film is a multi-faceted take on the political thriller, a picture full of pointed insights into the political process. While functioning as a tightly crafted genre effort, what intrigues me most about The Ghost Writer is the way it engages with a time when the media sets the tone for political discourse, and how the narrative that the mainstream media forges is as carefully honed and crafted as fiction, perhaps even more so. In an era where the media is omnipresent, The Ghost Writer tackles the power - and danger - of political myth making.
Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer (credited only as "The Ghost" in the credits) assigned to edit the incoherent memoirs of an ex British Prime Minister ("All the words are there, they're just not in the right order", he remarks after reading the manuscript) after the original ghost writer dies. The Ghost quickly finds himself in the midst of a political firestorm as the International Criminal Court announces that the Prime Minister is going to be arraigned on charges of war crimes, specifically sanctioning torture against terrorists. So pronounced are the parallels between the film's fictional Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and Tony Blair that the character may as well be named after him: he left office by resigning, and is accused of being in the tank for America (specifically for helping to sanction the Iraqi Occupation and global War on Terror). Olivia Williams plays Lang's wife, and the film makes it very clear from the get-go that she was, and remains, the power behind the throne (an accusation leveled at many famous political wives).
As the scandal surrounding Lang gets more and more intense, the Prime Minister's office forces The Ghost to move in with them, so as to avoid the press finding out who he is. He is hesitant to do this, as he thinks moving in with clients makes it difficult to maintain a strictly professional decorum, and he is quickly proven correct, as almost immediately he gets intimately involved in the personal and political dealings of the Prime Minister's office. And when The Ghost helps draft a political speech, one designed to save face in the midst of this scandal, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Harris make one of the most sophisticated political barbs in modern movies, brilliantly equating political speech writing with fiction. Especially considering that many of our current leaders would more than likely be unable to speak without their teleprompters spewing words at them that are more heavily scripted than most television, this sequence has a particular bite to it.
Roman Polanski's direction expertly toes the line between restraint and expressionistic, allowing the tension to build slowly and deliberately before it explodes. Even sequences of dialogue have an underpinning of unease to them, and that's because Polanski instills many moments with a dark sense of foreboding, as though you don't know what's around the next corner. His direction is tight and economical, and Alexandre Desplat's score perfectly underlines the drama and tension.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the parallels between the exiled Prime Minister and Polanski himself, who edited this movie from a Swiss jail cell. I'm sure many things intrigued him about Robert Harris' novel, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that this element of the story was probably the hook for Polanski. He poignantly dramatizes what exile does to the human psyche, while never telling us exactly how to feel about the Prime Minister's predicament - rather, he just wants us to understand it. Polanski paints the portrait of the Prime Minister as a man with very serious flaws - that he was in over his head, too ideologically compromised, subservient to the agenda of others, and more about image than substance - but a man, nevertheless, mercifully avoiding mean spirited vilification or idol worship.
The Ghost Writer also stands as an extremely perceptive deconstruction of the political machine; as The Ghost sinks further and further into the mystery of his deceased predecessor, it becomes more and more apparent that Lang is a puppet, serving the interests of a global military industrial complex as opposed to the people of his country. The Ghost happens upon a file left by his predecessor that leads him to Professor Paul Emmet, a shady character who clearly has some sort of connection to Lang's past, though he emphatically denies this until confronted with photographic evidence. As The Ghost digs deeper, he realizes that this man is a C.I.A. agent and was Lang's American handler - and this, obviously, is the reason for all the pro-American decisions he made while in office. It's revealed that Lang was an actor while in college, and this is undoubtedly why he was chosen: he could play the role of Prime Minister and allow others to make the decisions for him. Like many of the world's current leaders, Lang was just playing the role of a leader and making appearances, while others behind closed doors pulled the strings.
Like Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, this is the sort of story that Hollywood used to tell well; an ingeniously scripted, tightly directed genre effort. The story isn't merely told, but rather it unfolds, and we feel like we're uncovering the clues - and therefore the truth about modern politics - right along with The Ghost. It culminates in an ending that is both surprising and foregone, and a final shot (reminiscent of the famous final shot from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing) that is both comic and tragic, a brilliant evocation of the hopelessness of trying to tell the truth in a world that knows only lies. It's hard to tell whether Polanski wants us to laugh or cry.