Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

Tony Blair, a war criminal?

That’s what Roman Polanski’s new film, “The Ghost Writer,” would have us believe. Polanski makes no attempt at subtlety as he tries to connect Blair with his fictional prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). In the film, Lang is the handsome, charming, popular, recently retired British prime minister. Like Blair, who tried his hand at being a music producer before entering politics, Lang has started out as an actor. And like Blair, Lang is responsible for bring Great Britain into the Middle East war. Like Blair, Lang is married to a dark-haired, politically savvy beauty (Olivia Williams), and like many politicians, (though not necessarily Blair) it is hinted that Lang is romantically involved with his assistant (Kim Cattrall).  

As the film opens, a body washes up on the shore of a Massachusetts island (Martha’s Vineyard–an allusion to the Bush compound?), suggesting a  murder has occurred. The body turns out to belong to Lang’s ghostwriter, suggesting Lang is connected.  Lang arrives at Martha’s Vineyard that night aboard a private jet emblazoned with the corporate name, “Hatherton,” a thinly veiled reference to Halliburton, suggesting corruption. And if the audience still doesn’t quite get it, Lang’s former cabinet minister, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), accuses Lang on CNN of acquiescing to waterboarding in Iraq. By the following day, an international court in The Hague has formally charged Lang as a war criminal. Yes, war criminal.

Politics aside, the film is an entertaining, though somewhat predictable, intellectual thriller. When a new ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired to revise Lang’s memoirs, he is immediately attacked by mysterious assailants who steal what appears to be Lang’s manuscript. Later, he finds clues and discrepancies left behind by the dead ghostwriter. McGregor is excellent as the unnamed Ghost, injecting humor as well as suspense into the story. Fittingly, the Ghost’s name is never revealed–fitting because everyone knows that public figures use speechwriters and ghostwriters to put their policies into words, but seldom are those writers given credit. Lang calls the writer “Man,” and he calls himself, with boyish self deprecation, “the Ghost.”

The film is awash with atmosphere. The Vineyard home where they work on the memoirs looks more like a bunker than a beach house– dark, gloomy, and isolated.  The Ghost writes in an office with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking wind-swept dunes, where throughout the day servants stridently but unsuccessfully try to sweep up the mess of leaves that constantly blows onto the patio — perhaps a metaphor for the implied cover up of crime?

Supporting actors also add to the atmosphere, many of them almost cartoonish in the way they are presented. Watch for a bald and bloated Jim Belushi as the cigar-chomping publisher John Maddox, and a toothy, rat-faced Eli Wallach as the eccentric neighbor on the beach.

But politics really can’t be set aside, especially when a film casts such a snide, insidious, and deliberate attack on a person of Tony Blair’s caliber. Moreover, waterboarding hardly qualifies as a war crime. As an interrogation device it has been one of the most effective and one of the most humane. The sensation of drowning induces panic and fear of death, but no actual injury or permanent damage occurs. It’s unpleasant, to be sure, and it shouldn’t be used indiscriminately.

But horrifying, criminal torture? I don’t think so. In fact, several journalists have subjected themselves willingly to waterboarding, in order to report on its effect. I haven’t seen many journalists willingly submit to traditional torture techniques like electric shock, beating, or having their fingers cut off. If I were wrongfully accused and interrogated for a crime, I would rather it be by a method like this than by beating or cutting.

Unfortunately, if I were indeed a war criminal, rightfully accused of terrorism, the publicity surrounding waterboarding would probably give me the courage to persevere, since I now know that my interrogators aren’t really going to let me drown. Consequently, the effectiveness of waterboarding is drying up, thanks to the publicity and attention given to it by folks like the self-righteous Roman Polanski. 

Speaking of criminals….