Roman Polanksi’s “The Ghost Writer” is a tight, carefully engineered political thriller. It contains all of the classic elements of the genre: the innocent man who finds himself entangled in a broad conspiracy (Ewan McGregor, only referred to as “The Ghost”), an item that is inexplicably well-guarded (the memoirs), the recent and suspicious death of the predecessor (the first ghost writer), revealing photographs discovered accidentally (powerful people, previously unconnected, partying together back in their college days), a midnight rendezvous with the “good guys” (at a diner, no less), the disgruntled wife (and co-conspirator?) and the uncanny ability for our hero to always put himself in the thick of things.
Without giving away anything of importance to the mystery, the basic story is this: the Ghost is hired to be the new ghost writer of the memoirs of a former prime minister of England (Pierce Brosnan). For what he is told are standard security measures, he must fly to the U.S. to write; even more, he cannot take any of the work home with him. It must all be done in the publisher’s beach house. Amidst an explosion of political controversy in the news involving the former politician, the Ghost begins to unearth various parts of a puzzle that may indicate some kind of international conspiracy. People find this out, and he must decide to whom he can run for aid.
There is a sharp sense of inevitability in the story arc. Revelations sometimes appear overly calculated, as if the Ghost seems to be dragging himself to a predetermined fate. When he gets curious, he uses his own cell phone to call major political figures, attempts to breach the security of the prime minister’s memoirs file (well before there is much hint of conspiracy) and he can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, spilling the whole story as he discovers it to just about everyone he meets (even when he fears that they may be the enemy). While emptying a room of the previous occupant’s clothes, he discovers an envelope taped to the bottom of a drawer. As he begins to empty the dresser, it is quite obvious that he is going to discover something, and then he just happens to look, not at the first two drawers, but under the third with the envelope.
This is not to say that everything is this predictable (there are two big moments that I did not expect) or that what is predictable is not executed with skill. This film is nothing if not a creation of superb craftsmanship. What may be missing though is a stronger dose of originality. Everything we see has not only been done before, but it has been done many times before. I would have been more pleased with the film if more of the major plot points had been, if not completely innovative, then at least a more interesting variation.
Also, I get suspicious of this type of movie when the hero discovers important information about the bad guys by Googling them, or when undercover government intelligence agents allow themselves to be photographed, multiple times, standing next to their marks. But after some thought, I think most of the points can be made, or maybe slightly stretched, to work.
It is a testament to Polanski’s expertise that the film still feels as fresh as it does. There is a sense of urgency that serves much like a song in a montage that subconsciously smooths over dozens of pictorial jump cuts. McGregor’s Ghost is always searching, at first not for conspiracy clues but for insight into his subject (the prime minister) or out of curiosity about the death of the other ghost writer. This believable inquisitiveness is the motor behind the tension (even if some of it can rightly be considered stupid decision making on his part). A sustained sense of urgency is a powerful ally to a good thriller, and Polanksi gets it right. The script also allows humor to bolster what is otherwise moody scenery. Witty one-liners, most of them pretty funny, inject a certain buoyancy that prevents the film from taking itself too seriously.
What is most excellent is the apprehensive tone Polanski is able to imbue from early on. Even when very little is happening, the playfully dark music, tight editing and lucid photography lend a spirit of threat to the scenes. At one point the Ghost is gazing out of the window of the beach house and he sees one of the hired help attempting to sweep grass into a wheelbarrow. The shot shows us the beach behind the man on the deck while wind whips the grass, making it impossible for him to keep it in the wheelbarrow. This simple, dark moment of insignificant frustration is a beautiful example of what Polanksi is capable. It is a greater moment than all the discoveries of the contrived clues combined. Here is a man (the groundskeeper), standing alone at the outset of a storm, attempting a futile project and waving his hands in frustration. Right there is our story.
There are solid if not stand out performances from Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams… nearly everyone except for Kim Catrall, who seems at a loss for what to do with herself. Also, I’m curious if the three or four times in which the word “fuck” is (poorly) overdubbed by replacements like “bloody” was simply done to earn the PG-13 rating or to seem more British. It is irritating and detracts from the movie.