Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

It's always feast or famine: months of movies like Dear John, Valentine's Day, Leap Year -- and then, in one week, new films by both Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.

Like Scorsese's Shutter Island, Polanski's The Ghost Writer is based on a popular novel -- Robert Harris' The Ghost. Like Shutter Island, Ghost Writer is set mainly on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. And like Scorsese, Polanski uses solid commercial fiction to make a movie that chills and provokes.

In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays the title character, a commercially successful ghost writer (who is never named and only ever referred to as "the ghost"), who is hired to help complete the memoirs of Great Britain's latest prime minister. His name is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and, though he came to office as a charismatic breath of fresh air (after years of grinding Thatcherism), he's still controversial for bending over and letting the American president have his way with him, in terms of joining in the rush to an unnecessary war in Iraq. Any resemblance to Tony Blair is wholly intentional.

Cajoled into taking the job by his agent (and a big stack of money), the ghost finds himself talked into a rush job: The publisher has sunk $10 million into Lang's memoirs and the deadline is a month away. But the first writer -- Lang's long-time top aide -- committed suicide after finishing a highly unsatisfactory first draft. It's up to the ghost to meet with Lang (who is holed up in a compound on an island off Cape Cod), flesh it out and rewrite the manuscript to make it readable.

The ghost apparently enjoys a much more leisurely style of working because he seems very put upon by the whole thing. He is, after all, a writer -- an artist -- even if his art is massaging the prose of others or even putting words in their mouths.

He's also a cynic, having done this job often enough to know the difference between the grand ideas that most of his clients put into their books and the way they actually live their lives. As the saying goes, no man is a hero to his valet.

The ghost seems both amused and crabby at the security measures surrounding the first draft of Lang's memoir, particularly once he has a chance to read it. For one thing, the book itself is both dull and badly written. For another, there seems to be little that could cause a national-security ripple, certainly nothing that warrants the kind of precautions that Lang's people are taking.

But before he has a real chance to work with Lang -- to get material that would actually encourage readers to plow through the entire book -- Lang comes under siege in the press and elsewhere. A leaked memo suggests that Lang may have approved the extraordinary rendition of two suspected terrorists, who were arrested in the U.K., then shipped out by the CIA to an undisclosed location, where they were subsequently tortured. One of them, in fact, died.

Before he can respond, the charges escalate and Lang finds the focus of an investigation by the World Court in the Hague, which is threatening him with charges of war crimes. Lang splits from the island refuge to go to Washington, to try to shore up his reputation while fighting extradition. Which leaves the ghost to twiddle his thumbs and, eventually, to decide to pack it in.