Roman Polanski's new film, The Ghost Writer, is a suspenseful if conventional espionage thriller along the paranoid lines of such 1970s cinema as All The President's Men and The Parallax View, in which American institutions like the CIA and the Secret Service are seen as nothing short of the scariest movie monster since Godzilla.
Written by Polanski and Robert Harris from his novel, the film tells the intriguing story of a Tony Blair-inspired retired British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who hires a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) to finish rewriting his memoirs after the previous ghost writer he hired dies unexpectedly and maybe mysteriously before the manuscript is completed. As the nameless ghost writer moves into the Martha's Vineyard island winter retreat where the former Prime Minister is holed up while finishing his book, there is a public outcry and accusation that the former British politician is responsible for the kidnapping of terror suspects and their subsequent torture by the CIA.
As in his previous works like Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, and Bitter Moon, Polanski is a craftsman at building suspense based not on cinematography but on a screenplay. This taut topical thriller is standard storytelling yet the audience finds itself ingrained in the plot and anxious for the next development which offers profound conviction and subtle, ever growing suspense as thrilling as a protagonist dangling from the precipice of a cliff. While it doesn't empower the viewer as those 1970s films that proved engrossing enough to contribute to the removal of a U.S. president, it does leave us asking, just short of hopelessly, if we are indeed enslaved to the global powers that be.
The casting of several unlikely actors in key roles gives the film an eerie recognition as if Polanski is familiarizing us with headlines from our own times. Kim Cattrall, Samantha on TV's Sex and The City, is smashing and indeed an actress as Lang's right hand woman. Jim Belushi — yes, the sitcom star — is momentarily unrecognizable as a completely bald publishing boss, and the eternally young Timothy Hutton is a mild-mannered, possibly sinister publishing executive. Aged character actor Eli Wallach is gritty and colorful, but seen too briefly as a local oddball possessing a link to the mystery.
The Ghost Writer is not the grand motion picture Polanski's The Pianist was, but it is entertaining and thoughtful and drawn from the hand of a director who at 76 years old can still spellbind his audience.