Thursday, April 8, 2010

Polanski's Ghost Writer Traffics in Too Much Conspiracy Theory

The Ghost Writer, the new film from director Roman Polanski and based on a novel by Robert Harris, is a movie made for people who think 9/11 was an inside job, that no man has ever set foot on the moon and who subscribe to the Gospel According the Michael Moore.

That is to say this is a film that will appeal directly to conspiracy theorists and other people who are incapable of using logic to discern facts from fantasy. It stars Ewan McGregor as the eponymous hero brought in for a quick touch-up on the highly anticipated memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a thinly disguised stand-in for the real life Tony Blair.

McGregor’s Ghost is a last minute replacement after his predecessor’s untimely and somewhat suspicious drowning death off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang now spends most of his time tucked away in a dreary, lifeless beach house. He is kept company there by his longtime assistant and mistress, Amelia Bly (for whom they bafflingly cast Kim Cattrall), several bodyguards, a couple of ominous house workers, and a wife (Olivia Williams) who is never shy with her opinions, be they political or related to her husband’s personal affairs. The already written memoirs are a closely guarded secret and may contain damning evidence that will inculpate Lang in the war crimes for which he has been accused.

What could have been the makings of a savvy political thriller ends up as a hack job. Co-written by Polanski and Harris, a former British political reporter who became disillusioned with Blair in the wake of the Iraq war and the WMD fiasco, the story would have us believe Lang is a complete tool of the American government. I thought finally a film would have something more interesting to say other than the tired trope that the US Government is all-powerful and capable of manipulating not only its own inner politics, but the foreign policy of other nations. And not just carrot-and-stick incentives, but absolute hands on manipulation. The film, and surely the novel before it, have their roots in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate from 1962, but Harris seems to have lost sight of the political satire woven throughout that classic.

Polanski directs with the sure hand of a veteran filmmaker. He is able to rely on his skill as a storyteller rather than the shocks and jolts that typify the genre. And although he manages to inject moments of humor, the film has a tendency to take itself too seriously most of the time. Movies that traffic in conspiracy theory can be diverting fun. They can be spun into taut thrillers that keep the action moving at a quick clip, making us forget how harebrained the plot really is, but they run into trouble when they start believing the hokum they’re peddling.

The look of the film is dreary and gray, as it takes place on a beach resort in late winter. This seems to be an attempt to couch the film in drabness, hinting at the darkness below the surface, but the result is a muddy looking film. This is not aided by the occasional use of CGI and blue screen technology which is distractingly low-budget. It’s the kind of cheap effects work I would expect on a TV movie, but not from a studio feature film.

Brosnan and Williams are well cast, as is Tom Wilkinson in the key role of a Harvard professor who knew Lang during their university days at Cambridge. These three gifted actors do what they can with a paper-thin script. They are the only actors with any real pathos to convey. Each one may or may not have something to hide, which is real juice for any actor to relish in. Wilkinson comes across as perhaps a tad too sinister in his one scene while Williams (perhaps more a result of weak screenwriting) can’t conceal her true colors. Brosnan, on the other hand, is just magnificent. He’s cocksure in the face of damning accusations, frustrated by his lack of political will (the source of which is revealed in the end), and confident in his beliefs. The film leaves aside what is perhaps the most interesting character development. Without revealing too much, Lang has very strong courage of someone else’s convictions. Thinking back on the performance you realize Brosnan got it just right.

McGregor, while good, doesn’t have much to do except look scared, surprised, shocked and occasionally ambivalent. It’s a thankless role and I might even go so far as to call his entire character the MacGuffin of the film. But my biggest complaint is why Kim Cattrall, sporting a barely passable English accent, was cast at all. She’s a C-list actress, a veteran of Porky’s and Police Academy who became a latter day star because she was a 40-something woman willing to take her clothes off on “Sex and the City”. She’s barely up to the challenge of playing a woman who is both manipulator and manipulated in ways she’ll never know.

SPOILER WARNING: In general, this is not very compelling stuff. It wants to demonize a PM accused of war crimes for failing to avail himself of the justice system (rich judgment coming from a man who has been a fugitive from justice for more than 30 years) while at the same time disregarding him as a puppet for a much more powerful and nefarious organization. Add to that the hilarity of the big revelation that the memoir contains a secret code. Really? Seriously? The deceased writer hid the big state secret in the text of a ghost-written memoir? And the implicated individuals fear this as some sort of hard evidence? And let’s not forget that this movie does nothing to advance the evolution of cinematic depictions of the Internet: a keyword search that reveals the secret identity of a CIA operative? Perhaps that’s the reason for the recent enmity between Google and China.

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