I’d heard an old LA story, about a vice squad officer on duty in Chinatown. He’d told his partner that the best thing to do there was as little as possible in the way of law enforcement, because you never know whether you’re helping to avert a crime, or helping to commit one. Then, Chinatown, as a notion, begins to stand for the futility of good intentions.
-Robert Towne, screenwriter, Chinatown (1974)
The futility of good intentions is the haunting payoff that Polanski revisits again in The Ghost Writer. Both films revolve around a wary young man – a man who wants, albeit reluctantly, to do the right thing, to expose corruption and malice. But he’s ultimately caught off guard. In his naivety, he underestimates the power of the forces he’s fighting against.
This is a quiet, gripping thriller, and they don’t make many of those these days. Hints of Hitchcock prevail. The plot is set in motion by an unfinished manuscript: the memoirs of a former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a charismatic, liberal, but controversial figure who’s led Britain into a long, costly war in the Middle East on America’s behalf (yes, the parallels to Blair are hardly subtle). Lang’s previous ghost writer for his memoirs is found dead, his corpse washed up on the beach near the Martha Vineyard’s retreat where Lang and his entourage are living, in exile from the bloodthirsty British public.
Lang’s gruff, savvy American book editor (James Belushi in Harvey Weinstein-mode) recruits a new ghost writer to take over the project. He’s eager, unsuspecting, grateful for the new job and suspiciously fat advance bonus. He’s played by Ewan McGregor in the style of a noir hero, appealing, but fatally curious. The “Ghost” as he’s called (we’re never told his real name) is whisked off to Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard hideout, where he meets Lang, his capable, saucy personal secretary and mistress, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and his brainy and acerbic wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams).
There’s a chilly tension between wife, mistress, and husband, though you’ll discover later, for reasons that are not quite obvious. But no sooner than the Ghost arrives, Lang is being indicted by the International Criminal Court for War Crimes. It seems, that to successfully win the war on terror, Lang once ordered the illegal capture, torture, and imprisonment of a few Pakistani British-nationals. One of Lang’s disgruntled former colleagues in the party, Rycart (Robert Pugh), is the whistleblower. Meanwhile, the book editor is demanding that the manuscript for Lang’s 700 page memoirs is revised in finished in two weeks, to cash in on the notoriety of Lang’s impending arrest. In the process of writing, and of living in the same room as the deceased ghost writer, the Ghost stumbles onto a stash of hidden photographs from Lang’s halcyon university years at Cambridge that unlocks a shady conspiracy in Anglo-American relations.
The Ghost Writer has already grossed around $870K this weekend. It’s an entertaining, smart thriller, with an attractive cast of cerebral actors, and sharp dialogue (the masterful script is by Polanski and by Robert Harris, who adapted this from his own novel, The Ghost). About a fourth of the film, towards the middle, is a little sluggish in terms of pacing, and Polanski, like Hitchcock, is playing you, the audience, like a piano. He gets you apprehensive about little things, like a password-encrypted file cabinet, and a flash drive with secret, valuable information, just for mere fun of startling you. The film, however, gets a terrific jolt of energy during a scene where the Ghost follows a set of automated voice directions from the dead ghost writer’s car, leading him to meet an important source.
From here, the movie is a masterpiece of pacing and finesse. And of course, there’s the remarkable ending, one that involves a note being passed from hand-to-hand in a large crowd, that’s simply breathtaking. At the very end, you sense echoes of Chinatown, and wonder what Polanski, now in custody – under house arrest in Switzerland (a situation not altogether different from Lang’s) – is saying about the greater forces of government and the Establishment. This film is the quiet whimper to Chinatown‘s agonized cry of outrage, and it’s brilliant. You’ll be sorry if you miss it.