When Richard Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate back in 1959—the novel that director John Frankenheimer turned into such a memorable movie in 1962 (and Jonathan Demme into such a dreadful one in 2004)—the U.S. had just emerged from the McCarthy era. Indeed, the book (and the Frankenheimer movie) turned a liberal commonplace of the day—that Senator McCarthy couldn’t have done more damage to this country if he himself were a paid Soviet agent—into the premise of what is perhaps the wittiest political thriller on film.
Comes now a twenty-first century Manchurian Candidate, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which turns a liberal commonplace of the Bush-Cheney era—that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was so slavishly supportive of American interests that he might as well have been a C.I.A. agent— into the premise of another, lesser (though not by much), every bit as witty political thriller. The Ghost Writer takes a wickedly amusing look at the “real reasons” Blair was so adamantly pro-American in his post-9/11 foreign and domestic policies.
Like The Manchurian Candidate, The Ghost Writer also started life as a black-comic novel, this one written by British novelist and political journalist Robert Harris. (The novel was simply called The Ghost.) Though Condon’s satire is also a bit of a roman à clef—everyone knew that the moronic, red-baiting Senator Johnny Iselin was a stand-in for Joe McCarthy—it is far more amusingly broad farce—Condon had fun with almost all the shibboleths of Fifties America from brain-washing to Stevensonian egghead-bashing to military hero-worship to mother-fixation—and much less personal than Harris’ Ghost, which reads and plays like a political insider’s savage settling of scores. (Harris, who was once the political editor of The Observer and a BBC political commentator, was at first an enthusiastic Blair-backer and New Labour party supporter, but Blair’s whole-hearted commitment to the Iraq War turned Harris and others against him.)
Where Senator Iselin’s wife and Raymond’s mother of all mothers bears no resemblance (thank God) to the real Senator McCarthy’s wife, Harris’ and Polanski’s acidulous portrait of Ruth Lang (a memorably hard-bitten, wasp-tongued Olivia Williams in a role originally intended for Tilda Swinton)—wife of the book and film’s very Blair-like ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (a surprisingly deft Pierce Brosnan)—apparently cuts very close to the bone-in-the-throat that was and is Tony Blair’s ball-busting wife, Cherie.
While the book may be less a thriller than a near-libelous act of political vengeance, the movie is something else again. Though the titles say the screenplay was written by Harris and Polanski, the film feels all Polanksi. The ghost writer, played with just the right mix of cockiness, curiosity, and helplessness by Ewan McGregor, is, like so many other Polanksi heroes from Rosemary to Jake Gittes to Telkovsky to (in a certain sense) Wladyslaw Szpilman, caught in a Kafkaesque world in which he thinks he knows and can control what’s going on, but doesn’t and can’t. He takes the job of ghost-writing ex-PM Adam Lang’s memoirs after the first ghost writer, a Lang loyalist and long-time friend, washes up dead on a beach, but before long the dark, cruel, conspiratorial forces that so often defeat Polanski’s protagonists begin to turn the second ghost writer into a ghost of the first and finally into a literal ghost. Though not nearly as Grand Guignol—this is the work of an older, more settled, less “showy” artist—The Ghost Writer is rather like a dark, droll political variation on Telkovsky’s far more ghastly transformation into the previous tenant of his apartment, Simone Choule, in The Tenant.
As a work of cinematic craft, The Ghost Writer is nearly flawless. Deliberately and cunningly paced, the plot gradually gathers considerable suspenseful momentum, as The Ghost (he is otherwise not named in the movie) retraces the steps of the original Ghost—and learns, to his peril, what his predecessor learned. The dialogue is unusually smart, witty, and biting. All the performers are outstanding. Alexandre Desplat’s delightful score is alternately jaunty and creepy. And even though the story takes place in an almost continual downpour on a grey strand (with a Danish beach standing in for Cape Cod), Pawel Edleman’s cinematography has a rain-soaked elegance that adds immeasurably to the film’s sinister tone.
Were it not for Winter’s Bone, The Ghost Writer would be, far and away, the single best movie thus far released in 2010. It looks and sounds great on Blu-ray (better than it looked in the theater in which I saw it), Be sure to buy or rent it.