In light of its director’s high-profile September 2009 arrest — and the festering old wounds broken open anew because of it — Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer may be the rare movie in which the name of a world-class filmmaker actually hurts the project rather than helps. It might not be the right time for a Polanski film to play in a theater near you, but those unwilling to forgive the sinner will be missing the first great film of 2010, a Manchurian Candidate for the post-9/11 world.
For his first feature in five years, Polanski adapts Robert Harris’s timely political chiller The Ghost, about a ghostwriter (McGregor, called simply the Ghost) hired to complete the memoir of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan) after the PM’s previous ghostwriter is found dead, an apparent suicide victim washed up near Lang’s coastal beachhouse in New York. When news breaks that Lang was complicit in ordering the CIA to torture terror suspects, he’s suddenly a wanted man with a pending war-crimes tribunal and sign-waving protesters at every turn.
This sets in motion a chain of events implicating the Ghost in Lang’s nefarious affairs unless he solves a series of mysteries, moonlighting as a private investigator. A stolen manuscript, a hotel-room invasion, and a nosy guest are only the beginning of the Ghost’s problems as he begins to assume the dead ghostwriter’s identity: wearing his clothes, uncovering his clues, and following his GPS routes toward fate.
The film’s title alone is layered with double and triple meanings — there are the ghosts McGregor chases, the ghost chasing him, and the ghost he must become to avoid certain death. He’s an archetypal Hitchcockian Wrong Man, and The Ghost Writer feels like an updated Hitchcock thriller in many aspects: a bold, primary-color palette, the creative credits sequence, Alexandre Desplat’s Bernard Herrmann-like score, the irrelevant dramatic MacGuffins, the brief director cameo.
Polanski is essentially modernizing a classic Hollywood style of storytelling, situating his vintage suspense yarn amid today’s headlines. Brosnan has never been better than in his role as the unctuous puppet prime minister, parroting George W. Bush talking points about freedom, liberty, and the War on Terror at the expense of human rights. His character is even tied to a shady corporate contractor called Hatherton, which sounds a lot like Halliburton when it rolls off the tongue.
Leave it to an extradited fugitive who hasn’t set foot on American soil in more than 30 years — and who shot this U.S.-set film in Germany — to best assess our country’s political climate. — John Thomason