There is no shortage of ghosts in Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost Writer.
We never learn, for instance, the name of the young author hired to write the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang. In the screenplay, he is listed simply as “The Ghost.” In some ways, that’s appropriate: a ghost writer usually stays in the shadows while crafting the words attributed to the famous, but the shadows in this story are thicker than normal. As far as we know, our "Ghost" lacks a name, a family, and a past. And, by his own report, he lacks any political opinions. Ironically, that makes him an ideal candidate to shift the focus of the Prime Minister's autobiography away from politics to his “heart,” which apparently has become something of a phantom itself in recent years.
But there is another ghost writer in this story who is named—and indeed becomes the specter haunting the tale. We see Michael McAra only briefly in the film’s opening sequence, when his dead body is washed up on the shore. How and why McAra died during his own efforts to write the Prime Minister’s story is the eerie backdrop to the new ghost writer’s task. We’re led to believe that McAra’s draft is a dreary narrative that needs to be spiced up in order to sell books, but then again we will learn to suspect that there are shadows hidden in the text itself. Why, otherwise, would a long, ponderous narrative be kept under lock and key in a sterile postmodern home, a prison-like setting full of its own secrets of deception and distrust? Just what does the Prime Minister’s mistress know—and when did she know it?
Some of the other ghosts are so palpable you can see them in daylight: Adam Lang is obviously drawn from the silhouette of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When he gets into trouble with his own nation for collaborating with the CIA on the torture of terrorists, Lang seeks the help of his friend, the American president, as if we need any reminders of Blair’s alliance with George Bush on the Iraq War. On top of this, Lang’s been entangled with a conglomerate called Hatherton, good enough to pull the specter of Dick Cheney and Halliburton into the parable.
In a story full of subtlety and innuendo, where so much of the intrigue relies on the silent expression or the half-spoken clue, you wonder why the political parallels are so blatant. Some of it may be attributed to the original novel by Robert Harris, Polanksi’s collaborator on the screenplay. Brother-in-law of British author Nick Hornby, Harris was also once a friend of Tony Blair, and the story does lay bare the betrayal that many British intellectuals felt after their Prime Minister locked arms with Bush on Iraq, presumably squandering his enormous political clout and moral authority in the world. The film and novel show little political restraint in naming the treatment of the prisoners as “war crimes,” a charge that may be easier to make in fiction than in court.
Paranoia, Pride, and Power
But what gives this story its paranoid edge is that the political satire on Blair and Bush is merely a sideshow to the deeper and more secretive political machinations. At first glance, the Ghost and Adam Lang seem to be opposites—the nameless writer and the public persona. In fact, despite his naïveté, the Ghost carries himself with quiet bravado, the air of someone who knows that he, in his secretive way, will craft the tale of one of the world's great politicians. That bluster feeds the Ghost’s premature confidence that he is a good detective himself; writers do play the private inspector when they probe behind the scenes for the details that the public does not know. Hired at first to put a quick, commercial spin on a politician’s dull book, the Ghost finds himself drawn into a mystery where he believes that he will unmask the truth. But the film leaves us to ponder if the Ghost, just like Lang, is in the end merely a puppet of greater forces. The real “ghost writers” may be the silent, undetected power brokers who are controlling the government and "scripting" the outcome of this tale from their covert corners. Much like Polanski’s Chinatown—a tale about a detective over his head—The Ghost Writer feeds our fears that there are conspiracies out there beyond our comprehension.
Why is it that we like conspiracy tales? Do they express our inchoate sense that we have lost control of our capacity, even in art, to discern what is true? Or do they actually simplify the world, taking all of the ambiguity of human ambition, miscommunication, pride, yearning, honor and duty and reducing them to a sinister plot or scheme? Perhaps it is simply easier for there to be villains rather than flawed idealists. It is easier, frankly, for left-wing ideologues or Tea Party polemicists to play on fear and rage than to sort through the maze of competing intentions for the prudent course and compromise. But do we need these tales because, despite our own prudence and cautious reason, we still harbor some suspicions that the conspiracy hounds may be on to something?
The Ghost Writer does blend its urbane paranoia with enough sly wit to allow us to keep some ironic distance from it all. As Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times, "the darkly brooding sky that hangs over much of The Ghost Writer, the latest from Roman Polanski, suggests that all is grim and gray and perhaps even for naught. But this high-grade pulp entertainment is too delectably amusing and self-amused, and far too aware of its own outrageous conceits to sustain such a dolorous verdict. The world has gone mad of course — this is a Polanski film — so all we can do is puzzle through the madness, dodging the traps with our ironic detachment and tongue lightly in cheek."
The Ghostly Auteur
The Ghost Writer stands on its merits as a tale full of unreliable hosts, shadowy images, naïve protagonists, and long extended shots at odd angles, but you can’t encounter all those aesthetic devises without sensing that the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock still lingers in the modern suspense tale. Even the land in this tale is spectral. The story is set on a remote, gray, wintry coast on an island called “Eastwood Vineyard,” an obvious proxy for Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. In a movie about a surrogate writer, the landscape is actually a surrogate: the film was shot on Germany’s Sylt Island, on a windy shoreline along the Wadden Sea, rather than in the Massachusetts it pretends to be. It may be hard for most viewers to forget that the director had to opt for a European beachfront because he could not return to the United States to make a film.
Director of several landmark suspense films such as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, Polanski may be best known as the convicted felon who fled the United States to avoid prison after pleading guilty to “unlawful sex with a minor,” a charge stemming from his encounter with a 13-year-old girl. That event occurred in 1977, eight years after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Charles Manson family cult. Arrested by authorities, Polanski accepted a plea bargain, and was sentenced to a three-month psychiatric evaluation in California, which he served. But fears that the judge was going to include further jail time and deportation in the final sentencing prompted him to flee the country, and since then he has lived mostly in France, his country of birth. In 2009, while in Switzerland, he was arrested by Swiss officials on behalf of American authorities, who requested his extradition. Although the Swiss eventually denied the American request and proclaimed Polanski a free man in 2010, he did the final editing for The Ghost Writer while under house arrest in Gstaad. In the film’s claustrophobia and political alienation, one can hardly avoid thinking of Polanski’s own personal exile, or the complex interplay of anger and shame. Does the idea of a ghost writer itself imply a certain reluctance to accept responsibility for one's own tale? Is this a study of guilt—or simply a high-end entertainment about the way that paranoia can be used, even by the artist, to achieve power?
The script may want to imply that the idea of an author can be a fiction, but the film’s release made it almost impossible to ignore the film’s auteur. “If this movie had been released a year ago,” writes Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, “it would likely have been received as Polanski's best work since The Pianist, and his best shot at an international commercial success since at least Frantic in 1988. Nothing about Polanski's life and work, including his illegal and indefensible behavior in the past, has factually changed, but now his film is likely to be noticed mainly as the footnote to a scandal. Whether to view that as irony or tragedy or simple justice is up to you. I'm going with all three, all mixed up together.”