Layers of narrative and the art of indictment: notes and questions about Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

"The key passage in the book is, 'Name me one thing that's been done in our foreign policy in the last 10 years that hasn't been done in the interests of the United States of America.'"
---Robert Harris, author of The Ghost

1) I heard that The Ghost Writer was good, but I didn't expect to walk out of the theater stunned and intrigued by the best film I've seen this year. Aside from enjoying the way Polanski continues to form visual poetry out of menace, I liked how the movie piled on layers of narrative that question each other. On top of the movie's Hitchcockian thriller/detective story of a ghost writer having his life threatened in the midst of trying to revise a memoir by a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, (a thinly veiled version of Tony Blair), one can also find pointed references to the Iraq war, Halliburton, and torture. The film is about the difficulty of imposing a coherent narrative out of these elements, and the ways we (especially Americans) delude ourselves about our participation in recent history. In comparison to the complacency of other film directors, Polanski appears to want to justify himself as an artist even as he got arrested on September 26, 2009 for a much-publicized and debated decades-old crime he committed against Samantha Gailey. Even as he has acknowledged his guilt (but also evaded justice by leaving the US in 1978), he asks in The Ghost Writer have we in America comes to terms with rendition, with government-sanctioned torture, and with war crimes? That national unease feeds the paranoia of the film.

2) The Ghost Writer raises some very valid questions: of all of the leaders in the world, why did Prime Minister Tony Blair so enthusiastically endorse Bush's invasion of Iraq? As one old codger asks in the movie, "Why did he get mixed up with that damned fool in the White House?" The film ultimately posits an answer explored in co-screenwriter Robert Harris' book The Ghost, but even if that answer is political-thriller claptrap (it struck me as possible), one still wonders.

3) The Ghost Writer also dramatizes the corrupting effects of high level secrecy and security. As the never-named "ghost," Ewan McGregor enters a paranoid world of secret kidnappings, confidentiality agreements, password protection, and security risks, all neatly symbolized by the safe that holds the manuscript of Adam Lang's memoirs, the bunker-like compound on the Martha's Vineyard-esque island where the ghost is ferried (as if over the river Styx into the underworld), the oppressive dark interiors of the SUVs, the private jet, the hotel rooms, and the many other enclosures in the film. This Secret Service security paraphernalia may be designed to protect politicians, but it also cuts them off from their constituents. They live in a media bubble of Wag the Dog photo-op manipulation. In one chilling moment, Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) watches her husband on TV, and then says "Don't smile," and yet he does. Immediately after, her cell phone rings. She knows it is Adam calling from Washington to ask her what she thought of his public appearance. They are more concerned about manipulating public perceptions than in actual communication. As Robert Harris said in a 2007 interview in The Guardian:

"That's something I'm against, morally, the way that our leaders are swaddled in security, with bomb-proof cars and pampered and ferried around like dictators until the day they die, while the rest of us, on the tube or whatever, are liable to be blown up in their wretched war on terror. It seems to me to be morally wrong. There was a time when princes leading their people into battle were on the front line, not cosseted like this. They're the only people who are safe! There's something profoundly wrong about it, and leads to their isolation. Maybe Brown will be different, be more rooted in his constituency and his friends, but I felt during the last years of Blair that it was like being led by someone from outer space."

4) In The Ghost Writer, Lang flies in a Hatherton jet, an overt allusion to Halliburton Corporation, a major oil-services company, and its profiteering from the Iraq war. That left me wondering: what is the precise relationship between Dick Cheney's former position as CEO of Halliburton and the government contracts the company received during the Iraq war?

5) With its continual emphasis on the McGuffin manuscript, what does the film suggest about writing today? Random House deliberately hires the "ghost" to deliver "heart," i.e. sentimentalizing hackwork to the gossip-loving public. It's also ironic that the usual platitude-filled political memoir carries the (spoiler alert) key to the mystery of the movie. The Ghost Writer is painstakingly well-written even as it acknowledges the venal duplicity of the political media and crappy profit-oriented state of publishing today.

6) In the last brilliant shot of The Ghost Writer, was Polanski alluding to the endings of both Chinatown and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing?

7) I could write more about the pitch-perfect casting, with Pierce Brosnan finding new levels of nastiness behind his charm, Olivia Williams playing the quintessential bitter hyper-intelligent politician's wife, Tom Wilkinson conveying delightful smarminess as Professor Paul Emmett, Kim Cattrall ironically evoking all of her Sex and the City sinfulness in a highly buttoned-up role as the secretary, and Ewan McGregor redeeming himself for many recent forgettable movie roles, but I was most intrigued by the way Roman Polanski reminds us of all of war crimes with which we still have yet to fully confront, let alone atone for. Arrested, and editing this film in jail, Polanski practices his art with masterly indictment.

Related link:
"The Familiar Comforts of Conspiracies"


Jake said…
As you can see in my own review of the film, I'm no less electrified and enthused by the film than you. It is such a triumph of both genre filmmaking and simple craft in general that I've been thinking about it ever since I saw it two weeks ago. I meant to see it again this weekend (after waiting a month to catch it, I finally peeped it on vacation in Florida, only to find it at my parents' local theater when I returned) but I got sidetracked.

I love that it is at once purely Hitchcockian and a subversion of the master, and it does a far better job than Scorsese did and I happen to love Shutter Island. The music is unorthodox yet reminiscent of Herrmann, the direction is spare but arresting and the acting is some of the best any one of the cast has ever done. I'll be amazed if I find ten better films this year.
Thanks, Jake. I read your impressive review. I tended to focus more on the political implications of the movie. I just love the oppressive quality of Polanski's world where the ghost gets manipulated left and right by a mugging, a diminishing writing schedule, jet lag, a political crisis that erupts as soon as he arrives on the island, the rain, the grey lighting, the seductive wife, etc. Just by heightening a condition slightly (the alienation from one's body during pregnancy in Rosemary's Baby comes to mind), Polanski makes the sinister plausible.
Jason Bellamy said…
Interesting thoughts. In reading your piece here, as well as Jake's review, my constant reaction was: "If you say so."

I was hardly thrilled by this picture, which while visually interesting is in my opinion thematically trite. Seems to me that Polanski is giving a once-over to the kind of stuff that old news long ago. I mean, the concept of politicians worried more about the message than actual communication? That's new? At all? In any way?

I find the Tom Wilkinson chapter especially disappointing: flat, predictable, routine and visually unremarkable. In essence, a waste of time. If there was depth there, I missed it, and as far as the narrative is concerned I didn't find it very interesting.

Again, I'll give you "visual poetry." The film has that. But I had literally forgotten seeing this movie three days later.

To be honest, I'd attributed most of the praise for this film to cinephiles working overtime to make it worthy of Polanski. But your comments and Jake's review give me pause. Maybe I missed something. I'll need to take a second look.
Thanks, Jason, for your thoughts.

I imagine this kind of difference in our reactions happens all of the time. One film resonates for one critic while it does nothing for another. I imagine, too, that perhaps the political interests of the critic may also play a role here.

You say that much of the movie concerns old news, but the whole debate over whether or not to appoint a torture commission is very much with us. In this week's The New Yorker article I linked to, Jane Mayer points out that Obama's refusal to appoint a commission leads to people rewriting it:

"The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it."

In other words, Polanski's emphasis on rendition, torture, and the Iraq War still concern us as long as they are not fully addressed in court. The US still carries a lot of baggage from that war (which still goes on, of course), and The Ghost Writer dwells on that open wound, as it were, in a way that other war films, such as The Hurt Locker, with its emphasis on the rogue soldier, does not. It leaves me wondering: how many Americans know what a "rendition" is?

As for the Tom Wilkinson scene, I liked watching his character stonewall the ghost. I like the way Adam wants to call Ruth about how he did in on TV in the exact same way Sanford called his wife to ask how he did after his confessional press conference.

It's also ironic how at one point the ghost says "these peace protesters are trying to kill me!" I wonder if Polanski felt the same way when protesters and the media camped outside of his house.

I also liked the long tracking shot of the piece of paper at the end. I guess I have a special weakness for films all about writing and our convoluted relations to texts. The ghost wants to fashion a narrative as to what's going on just as the viewer does. The movie does come around to a final interpretation as to why Blair supported the war, but in actuality that question is still unanswered, and it still seems odd that he did.
Jason Bellamy said…
OK. I can see what you engaged with. I think the primary difference is that I'm not sure the film engages with these issues as much as you did. That is, I think it's pretty easy to watch this film and walk away from it without learning a thing about rendition, for example. All that stuff seemed so peripheral to me, the background noise of a very distant and very fabricated scandal. To compare it to Polanski's greatest film, it's impossible to think of Chinatown without remembering that it's about the control of water. With The Ghost Writer, I felt like it was about Political Whatever. That is, yes, there are themes there, but it's mostly lost in the background.

You'll disagree, obviously, because you engaged with those elements. And I wouldn't suggest that you were wrong to do so. I wish I had.

Thanks for trading thoughts! Always fun.
Good point. Yes, torture is not integrated as closely into the weave of the movie as water is in Chinatown, but didn't you like that (spoiler alert) last shot? I like the way the last shot happens off screen, the movie's MacGuffin explodes into a swirl of paper just as the money explodes into confetti on the runway at the end of The Killing, and Polanski has prepared us for the image of the speeding car racing off screen by the long pursuit of the ghost by a car earlier on. With Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray's car disappears into the night of Chinatown until the horn calls attention to something wrong, so again, Polanski calls attention to a murder in terms of its absence, and the fact that she's shot in the eye ties in thematically in multiple ways. Again, with The Ghost Writer, Polanski found a way to integrate the theme of the book, now the dissolution of a text with the climactic image. Also, in a sense the "ghost" becomes an actual ghost, once again suggesting itself through its absence, just as one knows from the outset that the ghost will likely end up like the former ghost writer. I think it's brilliant.
Jason Bellamy said…
I'm with you there. But, of course, that's the last shot vs. the entire movie leading up to it. And since I didn't feel all the invested in everything before, I wasn't blown away by the conclusion. But, yes, that's Polanski's visual poetry at work. (I loved the note-passing scene even more, to be honest. Though I'm not sure there's anything particularly deep or metaphorical about it.)
Jake, if I'm reading it right, discusses the note-passing scene in his review:

"Politics emerges victorious in the end, as the need for image preservation outweigh the ideological outrage espoused earlier, the PR equivalent of “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” A twist follows this denouement that is unnecessary and one of those all-too-typical kiss-off reveals meant to give the audience one last jolt instead of revealing something interesting or thought provoking. However, what came before is so smart that we’ve already been provoked, and Polanski was nice enough to lay clues to the last reveal throughout the film instead of simply springing it without warning for the purposes of shock. (Also, the twist is sealed through an almost absurdly long but brilliant tracking shot that recalls both the tracking of the key in Hitchcock's Notorious and the classic gag with Sideshow Bob and the rakes in The Simpsons, albeit reversed so that the scene goes from tense to hilarious back to dramatic once more.)"
Great review! Your entry point into the film was more political than mine, but your observations are all sharply made.

My own take:
Thanks, Andrew.

Believe it or not, I have already read and enjoyed your review. I especially liked your last point about the way Polanski shows the way an autonomous self can be ground down and overwhelmed by external forces:

"For all the film’s plot-centered twists, which meander past a Haliburton stand-in and the Ivy League intelligentsia, one gets the sense that Polanski’s primary thematic interest here is the destruction of the self at the hands of others, a decades-long occupation for the director. Like Polanski’s under-valued 1976 thriller The Tenant, The Ghost Writer concerns a man who is slowly, inexorably being transformed into the person who preceded him, an unwilling evolution of identity perpetrated with off-handed malevolence by the people that surround him. Other manifestations of this principle abound in the film, such as in the suggestion that Lang is merely a plastic puppet controlled by more purposeful parties. Polanski has long been fascinated with the fear that the self is perpetually under siege by the often ravenous demands of others, and here he manages another absorbing expression of this theme, evincing an unflagging cynicism for the notion that one can ever truly be one’s own man. That he achieves this within the parameters of a riveting, evocative, flat-out entertaining thriller makes it all the more gratifying."
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr -

Good thoughts here. I finally saw this movie tonight after being thwarted twice before trying to see it. Thought it would be gone this weekend and that I had missed it.

I enjoyed it a lot - mostly for the atmosphere, the Hitchcockian elements, and McGregor's great performance.

I loved the darkness, the bunker-like house in which Lang lives, the atmosphere of the storm, and the quirky presence of the Oriental caretakers: the grounds keeper's futile raking of leaves on a windy day - the cook giving the writer suspicious looks.

I liked the last scene with the pages blowing away (though I thought more of Treasure of the Sierra Madre with the gold dust blowing away).
I guess the whole thing about the message being in the "beginnings" was cheesy - but I liked it dramatically.

It was fun for me watching the movie on Cape Cod - knowing that the settings are supposed to be Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod - yet knowing that it wasn't filmed there. At times the film takes place in some nondescript location in the States, and this nondescript element to the location fits in with the writer's groping with a mystery.

Meanwhile, they put in enough elements to set the story somewhat believably on the Vineyard and the Cape - sort of poking fun at those places at the same time: the constant rain, the bleakness, the hotel desk clerk dressed in colonial costume, the old salt (Eli Wallach) who knows everybody on the island. Of course, there's no place named Old Haven - but when he's in the talking car, the GPS says Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard. Then he gets on the ferry (but there's no ferry to the Cape in Edgartown). Yet the ferry station he goes to looks like the one in Oak Bluffs.

I was impressed with Kim Cattrall. I wasn't certain it was her until I read your post. Good job on her part.

Also liked the whole bit with the photographic clues the writer finds in the dead writer's stuff. Sort of reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I think I enjoyed more than The Ghost Writer, but, still, this was a very well made movie.
Thanks, Hokahey, for your very thoughtful comments. I found The Ghost Writer the most subtle and adult film I've seen this year, easily the best, although Bad Lieutenant had its moments. The latter film still took a juvenile pleasure in watching a lieutenant do evil things. In regards to the The Ghost Writer, I liked the way the manuscript, so carefully guarded like so many constraints throughout the movie, falls apart at the end. Polanski makes the the lives of the influential look so controlled, so hemmed in by the media, the film invites the viewer to take pleasure in his or her anonymity.
Richard Bellamy said…
You're right. This was a very adult, thoughtful film. I had seen Kick-Ass and How to Train Your Dragon (excellent - but basically for kids) the previous weekend, and five minutes into The Ghost Writer I felt so refreshed by the experience of watching a subtle, intelligent film for adults.
Yes, there's something undignified about constantly being faced with adolescent-oriented movies for analysis. I can understand why some of the more experienced bloggers eventually weary of writing about new releases. So, what to blog about? I keep looking for new angles--books about movies, the evolving media, cinema's relation to blogging--anything to avoid just writing another carbon-copy hasty review that doesn't add much to the discussion.