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Movie Review

He introduces himself, simply, as the Ghost. He has no family, no attachments. We never know his name. He makes his living by chewing on the lives of bolder, braver beings, hovering and hearing as his subjects spill their secrets. Then, like a medieval familiar, he takes their stories and spells them out, retouched, reshaped, reformed. He keeps to the shadows of the text—a hidden voice in the vowels, barely whispered.

Now he's being paid to be the ghost of Adam Lang—a former prime minister of Great Britain. Lang's a likable chap who wears an easy smile, wields a glib wit and has the unfortunate habit of calling people "man" when he can't remember their names. Lang was an incredibly popular candidate back in the day: "He wasn't a politician, he was a craze," our Ghost recalls. But once in office, Lang made some decisions that haunt him still.

Lang had hoped to spend a few weeks wrapping up his autobiography—a project put on hold when his last ghostwriter was found dead, drowned. But now, just as the Ghost comes aboard to help Lang finish the book, the politician is distracted by one of his old decisions: his authorization to secretly apprehend a handful of suspected terrorists and hand them over to the CIA—where they were promptly waterboarded. Because international law deems waterboarding to be torture, and because Great Britain has placed itself in subject to such law, Lang is in danger of being arrested, tried and convicted as a war criminal.

The predicament is a potential boon for book sales but a personal disaster for Lang. In the midst of an extended speaking tour in the United States, the former head of state is suddenly marooned there, unable to return to Britain for fear he'll be dragged away in handcuffs. So he, his wife and his staff barricade themselves in a bunker of a beach house, hoping somehow to beat off the assault.

The Ghost is there too, of course … hovering in the background, asking questions, poring over the first draft of Lang's autobiography. And, as he does so, he begins to find clues his predecessor left behind—photos, phone numbers, hints that even before this newest crisis, all was not as it seemed with Adam Lang.

The Ghost begins wondering whether the previous writer's death was as accidental as it seemed.

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Positive Elements

The titular figure in The Ghost Writer could've just minded his own business. He could have just taken the $250,000 he was being paid to finish ghostwriting Lang's autobiography, turning his back on the clues left behind. "I'm a ghostwriter," he tells Lang's wife, Ruth, "Not an investigative reporter." But he changes his mind and instead takes to rattling chains, pursuing the evidence until he learns the uncomfortable truth—finally risking his own life to make the truth known to someone else.

Lang also comes across reasonably well, believe it or not. While it's suggested that he might not be the brightest pol in the pot—references to his past as an actor spring up frequently, and the whisperers say that before he ran for office he never had a political thought in his "pretty little head"—he's eventually shown to be a man of conviction. Agree or disagree with his actions, Lang, we're made to understand, did what he thought (or, perhaps, what he thought he thought) was right.

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Lang is likely having an affair with his assistant, Amelia—an affair that appears to be an open secret, though we never see any inappropriate physical contact between the two. Ruth, naturally, is bitter and lonely. And so, one night when Lang is out of town, she glumly seduces the Ghost—first holding his hand, then coming into his room in the middle of the night, then kissing him, then climbing into bed with him without (it's suggested) any clothes on.

While the Ghost tells himself that responding to Ruth's come-ons would be a "bad idea," he's not convinced enough of that to kick her out of bed. Quite the contrary. He responds by disrobing himself (we see his body in profile) and "allowing" her to entangle herself with him.

Violent Content

We see that the Ghost's predecessor's body has washed ashore under mysterious circumstances. He might have drowned accidentally when he was in a drunken stupor. He might have committed suicide. He might have been murdered. Speculation from the story's primary players is pervasive and fuels much of the narrative.

When the Ghost becomes concerned that someone might try to drown him, too, an apparent ally tells him, "You can't drown two ghostwriters. You're not kittens."

Maybe not, but he just might be a punching bag. We see him get socked in the gut and head. Two people are gunned down (we see blood on their bodies), and a third is hit (we hear the thud) by a speeding car. An angry mob presses against the Ghost's vehicle. "Some peace protestors are trying to kill me!" he tells someone on the phone.

News footage shows someone getting waterboarded.

Crude or Profane Language

Two full and one partial f-word. About 10 s-words. British curses such as "bloody" and "b-gger" sit alongside more universal profanities ("b‑‑tard," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑"). God's name is misused more than a dozen times (once combined with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' name is abused a half-dozen times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Is it possible that drinking heavily is a requirement for ghostwriting? Lang's first ghostwriter died after allegedly consuming massive amounts of alcohol, and we're told he was a habitual drinker. Our Ghost seems little better. We see him drinking beer, wine, brandy, vodka, rum and other alcoholic beverages. He has a particular yen for high-proof drinks: "White wine," he says to Ruth, as both imbibe a significantly stronger drink, "Never saw the point of it." Ruth tells the Ghost, after watching a dispiriting press conference on television, that they both might need to get drunk.

Folks occasionally smoke cigarettes and pipes, and one old picture of Lang, taken in his college days, shows him with a marijuana joint.

"Let's hope he didn't inhale," an old chum of his says.

Other Negative Elements

Most everyone in the film lies at one point or another—either to protect themselves, preserve their cover or simply to make themselves look better. The Ghost even lies to police.

Conclusion

The Ghost Writer is, on some level, another cinematic critique of the War on Terror. Author Robert Harris, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, says the inspiration behind Lang was Tony Blair, a former prime minister who many in Britain thought was too chummy with the United States and therefore too sympathetic to the U.S.'s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. To underscore its point, the film casts a harsh light on the CIA and some of its "enhanced interrogation" techniques.

Yet for all its (at times) pandering political underpinnings, the film is also a deeply thoughtful thriller that treats Lang with more respect than you'd expect. You have to wonder whether director Roman Polanski—accused decades ago of raping a young teen girl—felt a kinship of sorts with Lang. He, like Lang, committed a crime that made him a polarizing figure, both loved and loathed. He, like Lang, was threatened with arrest and imprisonment if he ever returned home, leaving him a well-moneyed outcast. Perhaps he and Lang both feel as if they're misunderstood. And perhaps Polanski is doing what most everyone else in the film—Ruth, Amelia, the Ghost—is doing: softly, quietly trying to graft a small bit of themselves onto Adam Lang.

Because everyone in The Ghost Writer is something of a ghost. This is a film about influence and subterfuge, where everyone haunts and is haunted. And for me resonance lies in this lesson, that there are people and things all around us, trying to make themselves a part of us. It resonates far more than the movie itself—which is actually little more than a well-told thriller that gets tangled up in booze and trips on bits of violence and profanity.

The overt story the film tells is, in some respects, less important than the subtle influence it can wield in our daily walks, without us ever noticing. We may not decide that Tony Blair really was a CIA lackey after seeing The Ghost Writer. But after watching it and a hundred other films just like it we may be slightly more inclined to think that drinking the strong stuff every night is OK, or a little more willing to excuse infidelity if the other partner was unfaithful first. These nudges, slowly normalizing behaviors that we thought were wrong before, are also whispers of the ghosts.

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