Movie Review: Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is Terrible (This Review Includes an Exclusive Note from Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghost)
Posted on Friday, February 19th, 2010 by Hunter Stephenson
There will be critics who call The Ghost Writer “a refreshing throwback to the taut political-conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s” and “an enjoyable treat that offers smart flashes of Roman Polanski in his prime,” and this praise, genuinely expressed or not, is unfortunate. Watching the film, I was convinced that had a “blind” screening been arranged—wherein a cinema-savvy audience was not aware of the director’s identity—hardly anyone would claim this a work by a masterful filmmaker. My personal guess would have been, “Ron Howard evoking Alfred Hitchcock—but has Howard lost his wet-fingered knack for the polished blockbuster? Either way, is this receiving a wide theatrical release?”
One could argue that Polanski, at age 76, had an uphill creative battle with the film’s post-production in face of returning international legal problems, in addition to the general agreement that his The Ninth Gate in 1999 and 2005′s Oliver Twist were similarly below par. One could also argue that after his lead performance in The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor should promptly go roll around in the waves for the rest of his acting career. The guy seems to care so little about his work here that he fails to believably: type on a keyboard (re: his character is a professional writer), urgently ride a bicycle in a downpour (again, he does this with inexplicable la-di-da slowness), and talk at a GPS with any semblance of a person who is frustrated. (The geek-minded will likely flashback to dull R2-D2 exchanges.) Without spoiling the film, the life of McGregor’s nameless character is put in jeopardy as he falls down a post-9/11 rabbit hole in which world powers, shady Ivy Leaguers, and secret agencies may (or may not) be in longterm, shady cahoots.
Not only is the life of McGregor’s ghost flirting with fatality (clever title), but he’s possibly on the tail of a story and conspiracy of a (our?) lifetime. It makes no difference that the guy is not a journalist but a hired hack who writes at the urge of dollar signs, any realistic excitement from being caught up in mass-corruption and history is free from his smooth brow just the same. With a would-be complex string of murder and cover-ups, it’s a shame that the film’s biggest shock is that McGregor appears to have decided to dig deep and really jump a fence in one scene to distinguish himself from a J. Crew mannequin rather than use a stunt double.
The film is based on the novel, The Ghost, a thinly veiled, accusatory condemnation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair by author Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with RP. Having not read the book, I was surprised by how scathing and open the film’s (and Polanski’s) politics and worldview are. Pierce Brosnan co-stars as the pompous, undeniable composite of Blair named Adam Lang. His quietly-catty staff (including a prim Kim Cattrall, cast as yet another adulterer) hires and instructs McGregor to be the latest ghost writer of Lang’s memoirs after the first “ghost” committed suicide.
In line with an initially light tone, the film does not bother presenting the previous ghost’s suspicious exit convincingly—to viewers or to McGregor’s open-mark. On the contrary, the obviousness of foul play borders on amusing. And if there was any remaining doubt of a conspiracy at start, Polanski’s over-emphasis on black, crashing waves in the Atlantic and grey skies as we see McGregor’s ghost depart (first by Virgin airplane) to meet Lang put a pin in it.
As prime minister, Lang’s popularity and reputation are on the outs due to his role in okaying the Iraq Occupation and Afghanistan War—referred to by a character here as “illegal wars”; Lang is met by McGregor in a state of denial inside a sleek, dimly lit beach getaway house in Martha’s Vineyard. This modern, heavily secured residence is filmed to have the airtight charm of a mausoleum built to store bloated entitlement and bad art; some Polanski fans might sense in this setting a forthcoming claustrophobic trip down paranoia lane—albeit a less horrifying one—that pays homage to those in the director’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Not this time. However, the attentive use of color and crisp presentation in these indoor scenes adequately conveys that Lang’s fortune and isolated doom are one in the same way, just as the often visible ocean is serene yet secretive.
No matter how aptly presented, these foreboding atmospherics and metaphors have remained by-the-numbers for the adult thriller for decades; and like the stale, recycled charades of today’s politics, they grow tiresome quickly, not overlooking certain autobiographical parallels.
During The Ghost Writer‘s first half, Lang’s controversy-spurred isolation away from home and his sense of noble loneliness deliberately mirror Polanski’s life. Judgmental protesters wave “Liar!” signs, including one who’s a devastated father mourning a soldier-son lost to the Iraq Occupation, as they linger outside his beach-front property. Aging and on the outside-looking-in at a digitized world, there’s a forgettable luddite joke involving Lang about USB storage to boot. Nevertheless, Polanski aspires to recognize here how politics have been forever changed and rocked by technology—a Google search scene reveals privy information that a young Robert Redford would have spent an hour in the ’70s compiling—but the execution is off.
When, on several occasions, McGregor stares at possibly incriminating photos of Lang from his moppish days at university, the Photoshop work on display is supposed to be cheeky, but instead the phoniness is awful. So, by the second half of the film—much more serious, politically incensed and reminiscent of the tonal shift in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth without the bite—the film has already made self-referential and out-of-touch strikes against the real irreverence it’s striving for.
I felt as though I was being treated like a toddler when McGregor’s character requests a TV be switched from a news broadcast of leaked military footage showing the illegal water torture of alleged terrorists to another channel—that just happened to be sports. Sports as society’s opiate. Enlightening; but if we’re being so deep, why not, say, flip to an airing of National Treasure or any piece of brain-fry, reality show escapism released during the Bush years? Later, when the former U.S. administration’s war path is linked to a complicit company called Hatherton in place of Halliburton, I felt like I was being pandered to like I grew up on a liberal farm and I was retarded. The blatant substitution is indescribably pretentious on screen—and I want Cheney’s head on a stick like everyone else—and reminded me of a writer choosing to use “Fuck” in an online headline and then inserting a censor asterisk. Who are these changes for exactly? In the movie’s case, why not suck it up and say “Halliburton” and really make the point and let the lawyers claim it’s protected under satire?
This may seem like a trivial, illogical quibble, but the film merely feigns the punchy vitality attributed to great rabble-rouser allegories as it hides in a limp, intellectual defeatism that says, “It’s okay for the movie to be discovered later on history’s shelf by a general audience…but of course, by then it will be too late.” Either that, or Polanski has underestimated what are already widely-accepted war crimes and horrors by his audience.
When the film ended, I also could not shake how the film applies blame to a female character for a good portion of the global harm and personal tragedy at hand. Viewing the film in a modern context and considering the male culprits that inspired the films’s plot, it doesn’t sit well. And of course, a few viewers will consider the specifics of Polanski’s criminal charges and find a bitter hypocrisy in this creative decision. Attempting with its conclusion to make a grand statement on the hopeless depravity of American and British politicians in the aughts, the aha! reveal that leads up to it is straight out of a gimmicky ’80s mystery or Dan Brown’s collection of jotted napkins. To claim The Ghost Writer‘s mediocrity is all in the name of lighthearted fun is an excuse I hope to never hear about a film made by Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson in their later years.
Rodent Watch: If you have seen the film, please answer: Where was the squirrel to save that character’s ass the second and final time? Wait a second. What’s this? I just found a message in an envelope taped under the third drawer of my desk. It reads:
“Sorry, it was too cold that day and I was busy watching Polanski’s Chinatown for the 20th time on cable. Signed, The Film’s Reluctant Squirrel of Fate. P.S. Just kidding, I’m actually the reincarnation of Alfred Hitchcock and only showed up for the first scene to tell Roman to cast Nicholas Cage in Ewan’s role as he originally planned. P.S.2 Sike, I actually work for Hatherton.”
/Film Rating: 4.5/10
Hunter Stephenson can be reached on Twitter. If you would like to send him a screener or NYC screening invitation, h.attila/gmail.