Start with a quiet intelligent action-less thriller (you know the kind - one of my favourite genres), add a nice dose of contemporary film noir, spice up the atmosphere with endless rain and dark grey skies, and throw in some political conspiracy that tries to address a modern mystery: Why DID Tony Blair join Bush on that insane ill-advised invasion of Iraq? What do you get? You get the kind of film that could easily become one of my top ten films of the year, especially if it’s made by someone like Roman Polanski, who has made made some of my favourite thrillers (Frantic, Chinatown). Of course, you could mess it up with your choice of actors, none of whom I thought were particularly good (though all were competent). And your story could be as simplistically implausible as many political thrillers and have an ending that doesn’t completely satisfy. But none of those complaints were enough to prevent me from enjoying every minute of The Ghost Writer.
One of the reasons I love film noir is that few stories captivate me more than those involving a man out of his element, caught in the middle of something he does not understand, a man in way over his head who you know is about to discover something that will severely shorten his life expectancy. With its use of the grey weather and grey buildings, The Ghost Writer milks every ounce of suspense out of that background story. And it adds some subtle comic touches to the proceedings, as one would expect from Ewan McGregor, our protagonist. I didn’t think McGregor was brilliant, but he is a perfect choice for the role (like Harrison Ford was in Frantic and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown).
Adding to the intrigue of The Ghost Writer is the obvious link between the former British prime minister in the film and Tony Blair, even suggesting that Blair might have been a war criminal. To me, calling Bush and Blair war criminals is not much more revelatory than Green Zone’s suggesting there never were any WMDs. Nevertheless, Polanski’s willingness to go with a political plot like this (including using the name Hatherton instead of Haliburton) is laudable and lifts the film beyond mere escapist entertainment.
In October, 2002, three months after moving to London, a colleague with connections in the British military told me the UK was mobilizing for war and that it had already passed the point where an invasion could be prevented. After marching with over a million people in February of 2003, I went home to hear Blair tell the television audience how thrilled he was that he lived in a democracy where people were free to demonstrate in this way, but he was going ahead with the invasion anyway (regardless of how many of his people opposed it). His definition of democracy must be different than mine. That was the day I first asked the question: Why, Tony? Why would you endanger your career and the future of your party to do this? The Ghost Writer does not, I assume, pretend to know the real answer. But at least it got me thinking outside the box. Good job!
My mug is way up. ****