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.
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