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The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski

Starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams


The Ghost Writer

British Prime Minister Adam Lang

Modern political memoirs are a genre of hackwork that are meant to be seen and not heard.  They are doorstops, the literary equivalent of first editions with uncut pages, something to leave prominently located yet unread.  Issued for “historical” interest in immense quantities, they invariably end up remaindered, as a group of publishers discuss in an early, excellent scene in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer”.  In fact, the statesman’s contentless, lying memoirs and the standard multimillion dollar advance fee are an accepted way of enriching a politician in his after-life.  Memoirs are retirement plans and corporate thank-yous.  That anyone would undertake to print a written document by George W. Bush (“Decision Points” is upon us) or Sarah Palin (“Going Rogue”), two figures so deeply hostile to language, is the proof in the pudding.  I myself have read a swath of books on Bill and Hillary Clinton, but wouldn’t dream of reading their memoirs, as there is surely nothing more there than a combination of elision and falsity.  The political memoir should be approached as something no more than a long-winded alibi.

The modern political memoir is almost always written by a ghost writer, who interviews his subject to extract data and some sense of the subject’s language, and cuts and pastes long patches of historical boilerplate.  (“I turn your answers into prose,” explains ghostwriter called simply “The Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) to former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).  Polanski simply has to be playing with Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and the vulgarian’s discovery that he has been “speaking prose his whole life.”)  Sometimes the nominal author is honest, and acknowledges that the book was written “with” so-and-so.  This is not common in political memoirs; celebrity dieters or football players tend to be more honest about their authorship as no one expects them to read and write.  Statesmen are expected to be literate.

What is distasteful about the ghost writer is the often correct suspicion that he is not only producing text for the inarticulate, but that he is also producing thought for the bereft.  Thus, the celebrity’s hackneyed joke about not having gotten around to reading his own memoirs.  The ghost writer is a cheat; in academia, he’d be tossed out.  You never hear about beautiful ghost writing, ghost writing that stirs the heart.  It is as if the bad faith of the process corrodes the product from the inside out.  Our ghostwriter’s publisher demands a draft in one month.  And then, as the former Prime Minister is caught up in scandal and the book becomes topical, the publisher changes the deadline to two weeks.  Of course, a writer alternating lines of coke with bumps of crystal meth couldn’t produce a few hundred pages in that time frame, which is part of the delicious joke of what are sometimes called “instant books” in the trade.

McGregor is urban to the very core: this is the reason why he will always be remembered for his brilliant tour as heroin addict Mark Renton in “Trainspotting” and the reason why he is always miscast when playing something other than urban detritus, a piece of grey gum stuck to the pavement.  Paper is something I imagine him smoking.  He has the worst posture I have ever seen: his spine is permanently curved into the letter C.  In his ludicrous depiction of a young Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, he could barely lift himself an inch off the ground in the light saber battle sequences; he seems to be made of chips, batter and beer.  He looks, on a good day, like a cell phone salesman.  You would not cast him as a writer.  Here, Polanski saves himself and makes me believe McGregor does read and even write, but only because he is a professional hack and not, as Adam Lang’s wife caustically observes, “a real writer”.

The Ghost’s dead predecessor, the first ghost writer (now an actual ghost) left a ghastly draft.  The unimproved text of the memoir is marvelously turgid.  The Ghost reads it with appropriate horror as if trying to swallow lumps of wet cardboard.  “It has all the right words, just in the wrong order,” he says diplomatically.   Lines like “the American President was taller than I expected” and “Her Majesty has always had a marvelous sense of humour” appear verbatim, I am certain, in dozens of existing political memoirs from politicians from Pakistan to Australia.

As for former Prime Minister Lang, it is amusing to observe that Pierce Brosnan always seemed to lack the gravitas to play James Bond properly; there was too much wryness and not enough brusque cruelty or seriousness of purpose.  One could always see the fey Remington Steele behind the Bond.  Yet Brosnan is perfectly credible as a contemporary British Prime Minister, apart from being many notches too beautiful.  Too silly for Bond, but substantial enough for 10 Downing Street: what does this say for the post-Blairite landscape?

Adam Lang is Tony Blair, plain and simple.  The Ghost remarks: “Everyone voted for him.  He wasn’t a politician, he was a craze.”  Remember those first images of wonky teeth and outstretch arms?  The craze continued all the way into the chaos of Princess Diana’s death, when he named her “the People’s Princess”.  Lang is a Yankophile so extreme that he marches in lock-step with American interests, to the point where his sense of responsibility to British national interests becomes undetectable.  His white grin is American, his reliance on spin control is American, and his private jet belongs to a nightmare American defense company modeled on Halliburton.

And his wife is American.  Not literally, of course, but she is Hillary Clinton down to the pant suit.  If she isn’t exactly the brains of the operation, she is co-Prime Minister, and nobody forgets it.  Like Hillary, she breaks the rules.  She punishes hubby for infidelity by refusing to comment on his latest speech.  Privately, she says all the devastating things that no one should say outside a therapist or attorney’s office, but in public, she is flawless, magnifying her political power through modern wifely deference.  Like Hillary, she’s been by hubby’s side forever, and knows where every last body is buried.  Like Hillary, she doesn’t even care that these bodies have dropped.  Her name is Ruth.

Lang is an action men, and that too is American.  (Brits are thinking, reading, speaking men.)  Lang streaks across the landscape, leaving his minders huffing behind.  “What is he in training for?” asks The Ghost in disbelief.  “The Olympics?”  One thinks of the lunatic fitness routine of President George W. Bush, which not infrequently left him with ridiculous facial abrasions after wipe-outs on bicycles and other mishaps. Bush’s regime was incomprehensible to anyone but a gym rat in his twenties.  Lang’s athletics are motivated by more than vanity, something existential like dread. The Ghost’s credentials are reduced to two: “do you work out?  Too bad” and “I know nothing about politics.”  But this is turned, Larry King-wise, into a kind of idiot savantism.  No preparation, no knowledge, no information: all congenial format.  Larry King would have warmly interviewed Idi Amin, knowing absolutely nothing about him.  And he would be proud to tell you that.  “Idi: did you get a bum rap?”

Suddenly, Adam Lang is being aggressively investigated by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for permitting the extraordinary renditions of four UK Muslims arrested in Peshawar that resulted in torture and one death. The notion that a First World political leader could be held to legal account for any aspect of his policy that did not revolve around embezzlement is, of course, preposterous, but it is buzzily enjoyable.  Watching a Tony Blair stand-in be investigated for war crimes is self-indulgent fun like donning bunny slippers and eating a box of chocolate-covered cherries.

“The Ghost Writer” addresses itself to one of the stubborn mysteries of the post 9/11 era.  Why, in the name of God, did Tony Blair sign on to George W. Bush’s Iraq War? What was ever supposed to be in it for Britain?  This support was of paramount importance in the run-up to the war, since it fooled other busy heads of state into thinking that there must be something to the case against Saddam Hussein, even if they never got around to reading it.  Blair gave Bush a veneer of legitimacy, which gave him UN support and the war he craved.

The European left could not fathom a motivation for Blair’s actions.  Stacks of periodicals moaned variations of: “what have they got on this mofo?  Who is paying him?”  (Now Blair is being richly compensated for his Prime Ministerial turn through the usual medium of books and lecture tours: which have added the vulgarity of riches to the vulgarity that is Tony and Cherie.)  In fact, the history so far is that Tony Blair actually believed the WMD story. In turn, the inert Saddam Hussein, busy living like an Arab sheikh with his palaces and his concubines, supposedly intended to deploy the WMD he did not possess at a moment’s notice.  What brings one to tears of frustration: that Tony Blair stood by Bush’s side out of free will.  In so doing, standing shoulder to shoulder at press conferences in which Blair would translate Bush’s sentence fragments to prose, Blair became himself nothing more than a ghost writer.

This is another recent literary venture for Polanski.  In 1999, Polanski made “The Ninth Gate” with a sufficient Johnny Depp and the just awful Emmanuelle Seigner.  Depp, who is thin, smokes constantly and is married to a Frenchwoman, is a credible handler of books.  But his character, Dean Corso, is commissioned to “validate” a book in the kind of crazy-making manner of a Ph.D. dissertation.  Each copy of the seventeenth-century volume The 9 Gates of  the Kingdom of Shadows turns out to have minor variations in the engravings.  In “The Ghost Writer”, it is said about the first dead ghost writer that “it was the book that killed him”.  No, no, friend.  Validating a seventeenth-century manuscript of The 9 Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows and comparing each variation is enough to make you clench a gun between your teeth and suck the bullet right out of it.

“The Ninth Gate” was a shambles, but it was only really intolerable in its embarrassing secret society Götterdämnerung ending.  It is hard to make a film about a book (as opposed to making an adaptation of a book, which can sometimes be easy, particularly if the book is bad or plot-driven: as, indeed, is The Ghost Writer by Robert Harris).  Film does not have literary properties.  The method of exposition and revelation occurs at a completely different pace.  When the book is put dead-center, a director always seems to say: “look, here is a book to elevate my film to the status of art!”  And this wasn’t just any old book (though it was, in fact, a very old book).  Corso is hired as a literary detective (less common than a Lady Detective in Botswana) by Frank Langella (with the marvelously sinister name Boris Balkan, which could probably get you under indictment for war crimes just showing up for a dinner reservation.)  Balkan is a biblio-sexualist, and keeps his books in a refrigerated, molecule-less environment a necrophile would envy.  Polanski had swallowed any of a number of encyclopedia of codes to structure his plots and give them weightiness (since everything counts twice!).  Since the codes must be rendered in film, they are preposterously obvious.

I could have watched several hours more of “The Ghost Writer”.  Of course, it frittered away momentum in driving sequence which had a car’s directional voice eerily steer The Ghost’s character.  Screenwriters should avoid cars like the plague, unless filming at a racetrack.  The saying goes that “women and machines don’t mix.”  In fact, it is the camera and the automobile, a machine commenting on another machine, which is the truly fatal combination.  After more than a few turns of the wheel, the viewer mentally checks out like a passenger sucking on champagne in the back of a limo.  It is not a brilliant film, though it is largely competent, but seeing some kind of explanation for British foreign policy, however lunatic, was like a two hour therapy session.  Obviously, many felt this way: in February, the film won Berlin’s Silver Bear award for Best Director.

For at least a decade, location scouts, every one an architect or an interior designer manqué, have been allowed to run roughshod over the reality of film settings, assigning schoolteachers two bedroom apartments in Manhattan, and ordinary physicians homes that are architectural masterpieces worthy of guided tours.  Here, the plot turns on an historical quality, super-postmodern home owned by a publishing giant.  If this structure is owned by Bertelsmann, I believe it; if not, I don’t.  And this is no ordinary home, but a massive, minimalist bunker to make the mouth water, hung with the kind of significant abstract art that only someone who had killed in the name of commerce would want or could afford.  The house is located on a nearly unpopulated island, supposedly on the Vineyard, but it was actually filmed in Germany.  This is the home of a captain of industry, the beautiful home of someone who deals in something dirty like oil or mining.  The executives of BP might sit in oil-filled hot tubs here.  This setting is a distracting absurdity but I did not resent it because it was so beautiful, even if gratuitously so, like a needlessly nude character entering the room.  Still, a location like this is an art killer because it is a reality killer, something Polanski would order up for his film simply because he could.

And now for another reality killer, there is Kim Cattrall, playing executive assistant to Adam Lang and mistress (natch).  I looked at her at least five times and said “that woman is the spitting image of Kim Cattrall”, but the idea of Roman Polanski casting her was risible enough to paralyze thought.  And then, it turned out to be Kim Cattrall after all. She is not tarty, but frostily sexual, in a role she hasn’t played in ages: dignified.  And she nearly managed the British accent, but you won’t notice the errors because you’ll be too busy trying to work out if that is indeed Kim Cattrall.  Making Kim Cattrall the elegant lady really is an accomplishment on the level of casting an actual poodle as the UK PM.

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  1. Muffy says:

    Great great review. Where will you put it? BTW: I thought that the fabricated bunker house was hilarious – all dreamt up by Polanski’s designers, based on the Mitterand style of architecture at the new Bibliotheque Nationale at Tolbiac – all witty exposed concrete and hostile surfaces. And that awful 80s type painting.

  2. George says:

    Good review! Weird movie, though. Wish fulfillment only, unfortunately.

  3. Erin O'Brien says:

    Some information about Tony Blair’s forthcoming memoirs:

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  4. mamie b says:

    now i have to see this movie. i read a spot here and spot there to find myself full of “gawd i like her writing style” awe.
    your description of the wife makes me want to see this.
    i loved POTUS Bill C. and would have delivered cigars to him myself, but loved Hill just as much.
    a smart woman who will put on mans pants one leg and a time then go do a mans job and but collect only her pay. women like that are truly the breath of god~
    and if there is a female character in this movie that fits that role, i have to see her.

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