The Ghost Writer (2010, directed by Roman Polanski)
In Roman Polanski's latest, The Ghost Writer, a British Prime Minister leaves office dogged by accusations that he was America's toady, and haunted by a torture scandal. Rarely in the history of fiction has the phrase "Where do you get your ideas?" been so easily answered.
Of course, there's a little more going on than just a thinly-veiled (so thin, in fact, that it's transparent) critique of Tony Blair. When the film begins a ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor with his usual charm and enthusiasm) is hired on to finish the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, who for once isn't merely riffing on Bond but actually doing a bit of acting) after the previous ghost writer dies in a ferry accident. Just as the writer (McGregor's character is never named) settles into his new assignment a spanner gets thrown into the works when one of Lang's former cabinet ministers accuses him of turning terrorism suspects (and British citizens) over to the CIA to be tortured, and the International Criminal Court launches a war crimes investigation. As the writer reads through the existing draft of the memoirs and researches his subject, however, he discovers some discrepancies that lead him to think that Lang's involvement with the CIA may extend back much further than anyone could guess...
Political thrillers are a tricky bit of business to pull off. The politics must be believable and grounded in reality, but in the end they always take a back seat to the thriller part of the equation, and politics in reality usually aren't dramatic enough for thriller purposes. There's no such conflict between realism and drama here. Regardless of your opinion on the counter-terrorism tactics used by the US and its allies post-9/11, the stakes (whether you frame them as 'America risking further loss of life, if not its very existence, if it isn't free to use every weapon available to defeat a truly evil enemy' or as 'America risking the loss of its moral compass, if not its very soul, in using torture techniques pioneered by the likes of the Gestapo and the Khmer Rouge') are extremely high, and there's no need for Polanski to create artificial drama around the issue of what the US is willing to do, and should be allowed to do, to protect itself.
Of course, that's all background, and deep background at that. There's no debate in the film about whether what the CIA does is actually torture (it's a given that it is) and only minimal debate about whether it's OK for them to do it (although Brosnan's speech to that effect is a great piece of work on his part). No, if there's artificial drama in the Ghost Writer, it's found in the usual places: characters doing things because the plot demands it, and not because there's any logic in them doing so. For instance, towards the end of the film McGregor follows a lead on Lang's past and meets up with a professor played by Tom Wilkinson, a lead that by all indications is what got the previous writer killed. It's only after the meeting that McGregor bothers to do a Google search on the professor, a Google search that would have made the meeting unnecessary. Of course without the meeting his life wouldn't be put in danger, and said meeting sets off a whole chain of events that lead into the film's climax, but hey, how many people use Google to look things up anyway? It's not like it's the first thing anyone with a lick of sense would have done in that situation.
Those plot contrivances are few and far between though. For the most part the movie's a solid piece of work. Polanski's direction is, as you would expect, engaging without being showy. He lets himself get clever with the film's last shot, but otherwise he keeps things moving forward and stays out of the way, never overexplaining nor underselling any particular twist of the story. He gets almost uniformly good performances out of his cast too, with Olivia Williams (playing Lang's bitter but loyal wife Ruth) more than a match for the two male leads. Only Kim Cattrall (as Lang's assistant) is a bit of a weak link, if only because she's inexplicably asked to try and fake a British accent in a movie filled with real Brits. Hell, even Jim Belushi is effective in a small role as Lang's American publisher, and that's a phrase I never thought I'd find myself writing.
Polanski's an old hand at this sort of thing, and it shows. The Ghost Writer doesn't re-invent the wheel, but it does keep it rolling for 90 minutes with only a couple of wobbles. And given the usual dreck dumped into theaters in late February and March, that makes it a winner compared to most of its competition.