One of the more fascinating aspects of the 70s-era paranoia thriller, when done right, is the conspirators' justification. Take this exchange, for example, between CIA operative J Higgins (Cliff Robertson) and CIA researcher gone rogue Joe Turner (Robert Redford) in Three Days of the Condor:
Higgins: It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. Maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them?
Higgins: Not now - then! Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. Ask 'em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em!
There's a similar outburst in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, also towards the end, from an authority who's about to be called out for, shall we say, bending the law for what, in his mind, is the greater good. Goes something like this: I'd like to set up two lines at every airport. In one line, you can walk up, check in, no questions asked, no security checks and board your plane. In another, you'll first deal with all the precautions we've taken based on information we've gathered, yes, some of it through torture, and I'd like to see which line [Mr Irritating, Politically Correct, Constitution-Observing, Law-Abiding Ex-Foreign Minister] would choose before he puts his kids on a plane.
Because Robert Harris, who wrote the novel on which he and Polanski based their screenplay, at least acknowledges that there's a logic behind the conspiracy that has, for starters, killed off former British Prime Minister's Adam Lang's (Pierce Brosnan) first ghost writer, never mind gotten him in so deep with the CIA that the International Criminal Court is threatening to charge him with war crimes over his complicity with "heightened interrogation" methods, and because Harris can fathom a line of thinking that is neither purely evil nor outright insane but that has taken a wrong turn at some point and led the US and the UK to betray its most essential values, The Ghost Writer has some of the moral complexity - if not, in the end, any of the sense of real and imminent danger - that lifted films like Condor, The Parallax View, All the President's Men or Winter Kills a cut above the bad guys with guns vs good guys with girls thriller.
From Alexandre Desplat's original score through cinematographer Pawel Edelman's slightly muted palette, The Ghost Writer is shot through with echoes of that era, the most telling of them being pace. Though Adam Lang is obviously a stand-in for Tony Blair and the unseen "fool in the White House" would be George W Bush, Hallington equals Halliburton and so on, this is a pre-Jason Bourne world. There are no gadgets more complicated than a cell phone or a USB stick, the camera remains cool, calm and collected, even during a car chase, and the ghost writer-turned-detective (Ewan McGregor) doesn't even play tennis, much less practice any sort of martial arts. He eventually solves the mystery by resorting to his only true skill. He reads. Text. Off the printed page.
The Ghost Writer won't be toppling governments or, most likely, any best-of-2010 lists, but it's a fine minor entertainment - like they used to make them.
"Coming just days after Tony Blair's appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry, this adaptation of Robert Harris's 2007 novel feels spookily on the money, even if its plot is largely a teasing exaggeration," finds Time Out London's Dave Calhoun. "The story might be shaky but it's always fun and Polanski's noir-ish direction is on top form."
For Spiegel Online, Martin Wolf talks with Robert Harris: "The similarity between Polanski's reality and the novel's fiction, Harris says, 'must have been one of the things that attracted him to it.' 'Maybe subconsciously,' he adds. In any case, the irony of the story is 'hard to overlook,' especially since the film is set in the two countries Polanski can't travel to: England and America."
Jenni Miller talks with Pierce Brosnan for Cinematical.
Meantime, Chris Michael reports in the Guardian: "The Kinoteka Polish film festival has chosen its eighth annual incarnation in the UK for a retrospective dedicated to the country's most famous, and controversial, filmmaker, Roman Polanski."
"While Mr Polanski's films are generally not self-revealing in any literal sense, he invites psychobiographical criticism because he has been, for almost his entire career, that relatively rare entity: a celebrity director." Dennis Lim: "His filmography amounts to its own microcosm, cutting a swath through a half-century's worth of cinematic trends." Also, an accompanying video, "Paranoia in Polanski."
Also in the New York Times, Doreen Carvajal reports that Swiss authorities "will not extradite the film director Roman Polanski to face criminal charges in California until Los Angeles courts determine whether he must face sentencing in person."
At indieWIRE, Brian Brooks has notes from today's press conference: "'I must say, it feels weird for us to be here without Roman Polanski at the center of this table,' said one producer as the conversation began. One by one, the actors and even gushing journalists asking questions, lamented his detention and inability to attend tonight's debut."
"A stylish, precise salute to Hitchcock's thrillers but still bearing all the hallmarks of Roman Polanski's distinctive style, The Ghost Writer is an effortless take on Robert Harris' best-selling novel and a film lover's delight," declares Fionnuala Halligan in Screen. "After the very disparate The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005), The Ghost Writer marks a move back to Polanski's pacy terrain of Frantic (1998) or even The Ninth Gate (2000)."
"This is certainly one of the director's most commercial films in a while, perhaps since his great thriller Chinatown," finds the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt, "although a comparison to that film with its Robert Towne screenplay so rich in early 20th century California social and political history would not serve The Ghost Writer well. This is a slicker, shallower exercise. It's hypnotic as it unfolds, but once the credit roll frees you from its grip, it doesn't bear close scrutiny."
For the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, this is Polanski's "most purely enjoyable picture for years, a Hitchcockian nightmare with a persistent, stomach-turning sense of disquiet, brought off with confidence and dash.... The Ghost Writer may not be a masterpiece, but in its lowering gloom (it rains almost continually) the film has some of the malign atmosphere of Polanski's glory days."
Updates, 2/13: "You're never quite sure how seriously to take the politics in the film," writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "At times, the indignation of the filmmakers at the ruthless, cynical behaviour of the politicians seems evident. However, The Ghost is also a rip-roaring thriller with hints of John Buchan's The 39 Steps and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep about it. The filmmakers don't seem sure whether they're preaching at us or trying to entertain us."
Reed Johnson talks with McGregor and Brosnan for the Los Angeles Times.
Update, 2/15: "Polanski is on frisky form here, as are Tom Wilkinson as a cagey Right-wing academic, Kim Cattrall as Brosnan's saucy aide, and Olivia Williams, as his clever, embittered wife," finds the Telegraph's Tim Robey. "It's a crisp if limited diversion."
Updates, 2/17: "Ghost Writer suggests a game of chess played delicately and with great precision," writes Ed Gonzalez in Slant. "However McGregor is framed, whether it is before a vast, toiling ocean or against a huge wall-sized window, there's always a sense that he's unsafe, that someone, something, could sneak up behind him at any moment, from around some corner or sand dune, even from out of the sea, and take him way. The machinations of plot are realistic in their humdrumness, but they obviously matter less to Polanski than mood — creating a suffocating aura of eerie tranquility that's bound for inevitable collapse."
"Shot in claustrophobic widescreen, the film showcases Polanski's mastery of even expository scenes," agrees Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. "A revealing conversation between McGregor's so-called ghost and a shady figure played by Tom Wilkinson is so fraught with tension that you expect those malevolent Cocteau-esque hands from Repulsion to burst out of the wall and drag someone into oblivion."
"The piquant pleasure and eerie effect of The Ghost Writer is derived almost entirely from the contemporary parallels," writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. "So how will the film stand up in years to come when the events and personalities will have become less and less important or completely forgotten? Stripped of this topical context, The Ghost Writer will remain a well-made, fast-moving but extremely contrived Hitchcockian thriller with an over-insistent Bernard Herrmannesque score."
"Aside from its director's reliably spooky periphery-conscious compositions, The Ghost Writer's most impressive achievement is its strangely empathetic view of a public figure's cracking facade," writes Michael Joshua Rowin in the L Magazine. "By the time the last reel brings an inevitable acrostic-dependent twist, Polanski has snuck a perfect dose of frailty and insecurity into the proceedings, the human element that only he can provide."
"The wrap-up is one strange, ah-fuggit mess, on top of Google-powered plot moves, but Polanski's work therapy could have been a lot worse," finds Nicolas Rapold in the Voice.
Scott Tobias talks with Olivia Williams at the AV Club.
Update, 2/18: "Unlike many modern Hollywood and Hollywood-style thrillers, which seek to wrest tension from a frenzy of cutting and a confusion of camera angles, Mr Polanski creates suspense inside the frame through dynamic angles and through the discrete, choreographed movements of the camera and actors." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "He makes especially effective use of the enormous windows in Lang's house through which the sky and ocean beckon and threaten.... Mr Polanski's work with his performers is consistently subtle even when the performances seem anything but, which is true of this very fine film from welcome start to finish."
"I experienced several moments during my viewing of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer during which I purred with appreciation over the fact that I was finally watching a contemporary thriller that was actually about something," writes Glenn Kenny. "[T]he something I refer to is, well, humanity and its foibles — emotions, alliances, betrayals, and how all that stuff can and does play out on a world-historical stage.... And I think it does, finally, belong on the director's top shelf."
"The Ghost Writer may not go down as one of Polanski's masterpieces, but if it does end up being his swan song, it's the ideal denouement to a life and career of unsettling resonance," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club.
"Polanski's characters are, as critics often point out, lonely and paranoid," writes IFC's Matt Singer. "But even more importantly, they are also doomed. Think of the most famous line from his most famous film, Chinatown, and consider that the hero of the film is a detective who does his job and solves a mystery, but is worse off for it. The same goes for the subject of Polanski's Frantic, an American in Paris who finds his missing wife but causes the death of another young woman in the process. Or what about the subjects of Polanski's 'Apartment Trilogy' — a series of films about people who become cut off from the rest of society and slowly lose their minds? Throughout his latest, The Ghost Writer, the hero is referred to only as 'The Ghost,' a description which feels entirely appropriate to this filmmaker's body of work."
Updates, 2/19: "There's an odd synchronicity between the two big film releases of this week," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Both are directed by men who were titans of the resurgence of American-made film in the early 70s. Both movies are thrillers about young men who become entrapped in webs of paranoia and deceit while stranded on islands off the coast of Massachusetts. And both are films that hark back, in precise and deliberate ways, to earlier chapters of cinematic and political history: the Cold War years in Scorsese's case and the post-Nixon era in Polanski's. I wish I could say that the movie made by the man who didn't allegedly sodomize a minor and then spend 30 years evading sentencing was the better of the two. But the fact is, Shutter Island is a disappointment, incoherent and strained, while The Ghost Writer is a triumph: elegant, accomplished, and (this is the hardest part to admit) occasionally even wise."
"If this movie had been released a year ago, 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," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "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."
Historian Simon Shama for the Daily Beast: "[F]orget the real-world echoes — or at least don't let them get in the way of immersing yourself in the gloomy joy of this brilliant movie."
Aaron Hillis interviews Ewan McGregor for IFC and ST VanAirsdale talks with Brosnan for Movieline.
Update, 2/20: "Martin Scorsese's and Roman Polanski's new movies make for a depressing study in contrasts," blogs David Edelstein. "Scorsese's Shutter Island, with its hammy quotations from the history of Expressionist noir, is like something on a slab in a movie morgue. On the other hand, Polanski's The Ghost Writer — likely his last film if he ends up, in his late 70s, in the slammer — is a trim, fluid, perfectly sustained work. Whatever its narrative lapses, it conjures from first frame to last his malignant inner world."