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Saturday, September 11, 2010

"I'm coming perilously close to acting."
"I know, me too!"
I just watched Roman Polanski's tedious pseudo-
thriller THE GHOST WRITER. It fails in several elements of its story.

SPOILERS, obviously.

[Update: and by SPOILERS, I mean I am going to recount the entire story, k? But if you haven't seen it already, this will save you two hours of your life.]

The idea is that Ewan MacGregor ("Ghost" because we never know his name) is hired to rewrite the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. The previous ghost writer, Lang's right hand aide, Mike McAra, was found up washed up on the beach, presumed drowned by falling off the ferry his car was found on. Meanwhile Lang is under pressure because he's been indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for being involved in the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects, and is in danger of being extradited.

So first of all, I'm having trouble believing the movie, because I don't believe Britain would turn over any former PM to the Hague for the crime of giving orders, and I don't even believe that Polanski believes that either, given that the US failed to extradite him from Switzerland for drugging and raping a 13-year-old, and one extends rather more courtesy to political leaders than to artists.

Ghost suspects that McAra was murdered, because the currents were wrong for his body to wash up on the beach, and a local saw flashlights on the beach -- a local who since has fallen down the steps and gone into a coma.

Ghost immediately tells Lang's wife, Ruth, who gets upset and then sleeps with him.

Ghost discovers odd bits of evidence that McAra knew something. That something turns out to be that, while a student actor at Cambridge, Lang hung out with another student who is now a professor whom a random web page on the internet accuses of being a spy for the CIA. So the obvious conclusion is that the former Prime Minister of Britain is a CIA stooge.

Now being followed by guys in a mysterious car, Ghost ditches his own car on the ferry to lose the guys, sneaks back onto the mainland, and gets a room at the ferry terminal, I guess because that's the last place you'd look for a guy who just ditched his car on the ferry.

Ghost finally does something sensible, and calls Lang's nemesis, the British foreign secretary who's just had Lang indicted, Richard Rycart. Rycart meets him, reveals that McAra had leaked him documents to implicate Lang, and asks Ghost to go back and confront Lang with a tape recorder, I guess in the hopes that Lang will break down and admit everything on tape that he has previously murdered people in order to hide.

But Lang is shot dead by a peace protestor. (Heh.) Ghost writes up his book. It's a big hit. But then he realizes that if you put together the first words of all the chapters, it reads "Lang's wife Ruth was recruited into the CIA by professor Paul Emmett."

So, naturally, he writes this up on a page, folds it up, and has it passed to Ruth. Then he runs off, and is hit by a car.


This movie is a great example of how an impressive director can make an utterly preposterous story seem half good. The movie is full of atmospherics -- cars driving in heavy rain, beaches in the dark, that sort of the thing. The performances are lovely. The music keeps encouraging us to believe that this is all very scary and important.

And yet it is utterly preposterous. And the story is crap.

A story is (a) a compelling character (b) who has an opportunity, problem or goal (c) who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist (d) who faces jeopardy (e) and can win stakes.

(a) Ewan MacGregor's character is a bland hack known for writing celebrity autobiographies. He doesn't necessarily want the job, but $250,000 is interesting to him. There's no reason we should care about him. He's not particularly interested in the truth. He's interested in finding personable details to flesh out Lang's banal memoirs.

(b) Ghost's opportunity is to make $250,000 by rewriting a 600-page memoir inside of 2 weeks. He quickly drops this goal, because inside of a day or two he is roaming around the island in the rain talking to random people about Mike McAra's death.

So that's obviously not the driving force of the story. It must be his problem: that Mike McAra, a man he never knew, may have been murdered.

But if he really believed that, what is it in his character that makes him dig more? A desire to be killed as well? A devotion to the truth? Pathological curiosity? Any of these would be interesting, but neither is his character. If he actually had a character, that could explain it. But he doesn't have one.

(c) Obstacles / antagonists: never really defined. Mysterious people who drive around in cars.

(d) Jeopardy: presumably, that he will be killed if he finds out the thing that got McAra killed. But he never takes this very seriously, because tells Lang's wife he thinks someone had McAra murdered, then tells Lang's wife he thinks she's a spy. He also drives around asking people about McAra's death, and confronts Lang's old professor buddy, who he has every reason to believe is part of the conspiracy.

Man, if I thought someone I was working for was CIA, or Mossad, or Mafia, or KGB, I would do my job, keep my head down, and get out. And if I was the sort of person who couldn't resist snooping, I wouldn't talk to anyone.

Of course it's all very cinematic to have Ghost running around asking questions and telling people what he knows. But it is the job of the screenwriter (and the director who's guiding him) to give him legitimate motivations for being so bloody stupid, or coming up with a clever way to do it safely.

And incidentally, if after all that, Ruth was really CIA, and murdered McAra, then Ruth's behavior after Ghost tells her he thinks McAra was murdered is inexplicable, since she makes absolutely no effort to find out exactly how much he knows, or to prevent him from learning anything else.

(e) Stakes: er, what, exactly? If he is successful, he can expose the former Prime Minister of Britain as a murderous CIA stooge. This will embarrass a lot of people, but I'm not clear how it helps anyone, since he is no longer Prime Minister, and is already being indicted for war crimes.

Later, it's that if he is successful, he can expose the former PM's wife to be a murderous CIA stooge. Except he doesn't really want to expose her, he just wants her to know that he knows. Because ... why? I don't know. Polanski makes a big deal of that little slip of paper being passed from person to person until it reaches Ruth Lang... but so what? Ghost has no actual evidence. He has no credibility as a journalist -- he's a ghost writer. And he has signed a confidentiality agreement. So if he talks, Lang's wife will bankrupt him.

Moreover, on a slightly abstract level: Lang has been in government all along. If any PM became a US poodle -- whether because he was CIA or his wife was, or because he just couldn't get a decent cheeseburger any other way -- everyone would sooner or later know it. The voters could turf him out. His party could turf him out. His party could refuse to go along with him. The PM can do very little without the consent of his party. So if the British people, and Lang's party, kept him on as PM, then they obviously wanted him to be a US poodle. And then where's the conspiracy?


Of course, the elements of story aren't everything. In a genre movie, you have to deliver the genre goods. A great horror story with no horror fails; and there are some horror movies that succeed with very little story, because they deliver a lot of horror. But THE GHOST WRITER fails to deliver here either. It's a thriller with very little suspense. No oh my god will he be caught. The lamest of slow-motion car chases. Much of the movie is moody scenes of rain and fog.

Ah, yes, the rain and fog. There is a great deal of this. It seems to rain nonstop, and everyone either walks or drives around in it.

There is also some lovely acting. Ewan MacGregor has almost nothing to work with, but Pierce Brosnan does some really fine work as a politician behind the scenes. Kim Cattrall makes you completely forget a certain sexhound publicist she has been known to play. And Olivia Williams is spectacular as the wife.

Yes, the acting and the camerawork is lovely. But the story is a mess. The main character has no character. He does things that no reasonable person would do, without any real motivation to do them other than he's in a Roman Polanski movie. The movie betrays its own jeopardy, and the stakes are muddy.

In other words, it's a director's movie.

Is this another failure of the auteur system, where a director with a big enough name no longer has to answer to anybody, and winds up with ridiculous plotholes in his movies? (See Lucas, George.) What was the presumed audience for this?

And for bonus points, class: if they handed you the script to this turkey, told you they weren't sure about it, and asked you how you'd rewrite it, what would you tell them?

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10 Comments:

"SPOILERS" you say? Damn guy, you told the whole story(well you say it wasn't a story to begin with, so feh...)
The extradiction part resembles the Polanski story doesn't it? Perverse people have their defenders who cry victim-hood so Polanski has his backers...

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 7:13 PM  

It sounds like Ghost needed to be something like a former journalist whose career is washed up so he's turned to writing these kinds of books. Faced with such good dirt, maybe he thinks he can revitalize a legit career. So he's driven by greed. I guess it kind of becomes noir at this juncture. A greedy hero pursues the truth about other less than morally great people for fame.

That's my first thought about what to do with it...

By Blogger Harlan, at 10:10 PM  

It's disappointing reading something like this... There's so much there that a writer could really get their teeth stuck into!

This may have been address in the film, but why did the PM hire a writer to finish rewriting his memoirs right now? Seems a bit silly on his part after he had to murder the previous writer for... well, writing.

For me, the obvious problem is Ghost's character. Surely having him as something like an old friend of the original writer would be good; if he's something like a mentor to Ghost (a cliche, true) it gives Ghost a reason to want to find out why he died, then to finish his work.

Having a twist at the end might have spiced things up too; maybe all the clues point towards the PM as the bad guy, but it's actually his wife pulling the strings? Ghost thinks he can trust her and then *BAM* the classic old car-in-the-face.

By Blogger unitled, at 9:46 AM  

Hey Alex,

I remember reading this book a couple years ago. Vaguely anyway. It was a bit of a mess too but not as bad as this recounting makes the movie out to be.

I sort of remember that Ghost wanted to move to something worthwhile instead of fluff but that's not a strong memory either. It reminded me a bit of a Dan Brown book with lots of going from one place to another and monologuing . It was one of those books that reminded me of Dorothy Parker's review of something, to wit, "This is not a book to be put down lightly. It should be flung with great force across the room."

When the movie was announced I was hoping that it would get cleaned up as there was sort of a baseline conflict there of 'telling the story versus making the story' but noooooo.

Thanks for trying to save me the time but I'm perverse and will probably try to read the book again then wait for move to show on cable. So 12 more hours wasted.

edj

By Blogger ed.j., at 2:21 PM  

I watched this movie over the weekend and I enjoyed it a lot more than you did.

I had no problems with the Ghost's motivation which I thought was explained in his meeting with the book publisher/editor and the ex-PM's people. Immediately he was painted as a nerdy sheltered writer who seems to be stumbling along and only succeeding because he has a persistent agent. Ghost is interested in the "heart" of his subject (I read as "truth"), as emphasized again at the end of that scene by Jim Belushi's character. But I too didn't completely understand why he had to tell Lang's wife at the end through an elaborate note-passing scene. If anything else, I thought it was more to create a tidy ending for the audience.

As for suspense, I thought the movie succeeded through its sparseness and the appearance of odd characters that seem to thrive in an inhospitable environment.

By Blogger Norlinda, at 4:05 PM  

Why on earth would Lang hire a SECOND writer to snoop around in his background and come close to outing him as a CIA stooge?

My first instinct, make Ghost a relative/lover/partner to McAra, so there's some personal stake involved in solving the mysterious death. Perhaps he positions himself as the new ghostwriter, in order to get closer to Lang.

By Blogger Andrew Moore, at 6:41 PM  

I saw this movie and had the same questions and complaints. Almost nothing that the main character does makes any sense. Nor does he ever find any real evidence for his conclusions. In the end he is hit by a random car. Its not even a bad guys car. Its just a car that he runs in front of, off screen, while the audience is thinking "he is about to be hit by a car because he's walking down the middle of a busy street even though there is a perfectly good sidewalk right there."

Perhaps cinematographers, lighting types & directors may use the film as an example of how to shoot gloomy scenes in the rain. It did that very well.

I didn't realize it was a Polanski film until after it started or I may not have watched it at all. Perhaps he has/had talent but given his crimes I'm surprised he is still allowed to make money in the US market at all.

By Blogger JBC, at 7:52 AM  

Two lessons I can take away from this:

1) In such a situation as you describe in the plot? The Conspiracy is All of Us.

2) Point One being true, we therefore don't need to do a thing about people like Ghost. They'll kill themselves with their own lack of attention to what's happening around them eventually anyway.

3) We can therefore get on with Business As Usual. Especially if we want to self-destruct as a society and a species.

By Blogger Dwight Williams, at 9:47 PM  

Oh.

See what I mean about attention to detail there? Two thoughts, but I wrote three.

We're Doomed.

By Blogger Dwight Williams, at 9:50 PM  

I think the whole point of this movie is to debunk the conspiracy theories that surround the Tony Blair / US invasion of IRAQ.
The first ghost writer worked up a theory that was obviously not true.
He just fell overboard accidentally. Eli Wallach's character simply got it wrong saying the currents were "all wrong". That's why Roman Polanski used a very old possibly senile man. The clues that the second ghost then followed up were clearly rubbish. Lang's wife was clearly not CIA that's why she looked so shocked when she read the note. (That's why the note was in the movie)
The ghost getting run over at the end was simply an accident.
The conversation on the plane will explain that Lang's reaction to The Ghost's revelation was that he thought it was clearly rubbish. He simply laughed and shouted. Which would leave just the wife Ruth to order the tortures , which should wouldn't be able to do without his say so. So the ghost was simply chasing ghosts, with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure.

By Blogger Jay, at 8:51 PM  

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