On the surface of it, The Ghost Writer is your average thriller. A neophyte writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to ghost write the memoirs of an ex-British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). For those not in the know, a relatively common facet of memoirs/autobiographies is for them to be “ghost written”, written by other people who imitate the writing style of the purported main author. This, while arguably dishonest, allows politicians or whomever to transcend their own crappy writing skills while still getting their thoughts down on paper. Anyways, Ewan McGregor quickly finds that there is more to this former prime minister than meets the eye and that there is some dark secret to him. The film is McGregor exploring the memoirs, the prime minister's life, and the activities of the former ghost writer who mysteriously died before finishing, all in search of the peculiarities of Pierce Brosnan's seedy past.
Despite this formula for what sounds like a quick mindless read of an airplane novel, The Ghost Writer kept my rapt attention. The setting was one prime reason. I don't know where it was filmed, but the movie spent most of its time with McGregor at the prime minister's distant home on the cloudy beaches of some winter coast. Through The Ghost Writer's cautious, exploratory pace, we are able to feel the isolation of living out there. The small town is perpetually sleepy. The people who live there are few and quiet. The only transportation out is by ferry, which forces you to slowly observe the weatherbeaten shores. All in all, it reminded me of coasts of the Pacific Northwest which, most of the time, are foggy and somber affairs. This thought provoking feel helped to subsume me into McGregor's meandering observation of the memoirs before him and the analytical quest to discover more about Brosnan's life.
Another thing that The Ghost Writer captured in spades is great acting. Ewan McGregor is inquisitive and intelligent while simultaneously foolhardy and naïve. Pierce Brosnan manages a peculiar blend of competent, smooth-talker and one-track minded simpleton. Olivia Williams (who plays the prime minister's wife) is a lost soul, cast adrift, and yet sharply intellectual and with hidden depths that you can't quite penetrate til the end. And, perhaps above all, I was in awe of Tom Wilkinson's cameo as the prime minister's old, obscure friend from college. His meeting with Ewan McGregor's character is intense; you can tell that he's polite and cordial, yet hiding something and, half the time, seems as if he's downright threatening. Perhaps, in the end, what I'm trying to point out is that there was something that seemed somewhat... off... about each of the characters, which kept my interest and made me pay especial interest in what was going on throughout the film.
Spoilers from this point onward.
However, what killed the film for me was its effort to deliver an overly blunt and ridiculous political statement. It becomes clear in short order that Pierce Brosnan's character, the ex-prime minister, is supposed to be an imitation of Tony Blair, the real life British PM who was in power during America's entrance into the war in Iraq. In The Ghost Writer, Brosnan's character faces war crime charges for his activities as prime minister, where he allied Britain to the whims of the United States for some war in the Middle East. The analogy is painfully obvious and, within the first half hour, you can tell that the writer of this screenplay wanted to rip Tony Blair a new one. This is obscenely clear by the twist near the end that reveals that Brosnan's meteoric rise to power was only made possible through the shady cooperation of the American CIA. Translation: he was America's toady all along, which explained his willingness to go along with the United States even into constitutionally murky wars and committing who knows what war crimes.
Once this was revealed, I immediately lost a great deal of respect for the movie. To paint a Tony Blair analogue as some secret long-time servant to the United States is patently ridiculous. I've always found conspiracy theories to be preposterous wastes of time and to find that the dark secret that McGregor pursued throughout the movie was such a conspiracy theory made me throw up my hands in exasperation. It was like watching a well-made interesting thriller that ends with telling you that the 9/11 attacks were engineered by the Bush government or that the Pearl Harbor bombing was secretly masterminded by Roosevelt. Perhaps this would be an exciting twist to someone who entertains such cynical and unlikely notions about the world and its history, but not me.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, its acting, and its feel, but its end twist lost it a lot of points with me. Would I still recommend it...? Probably, but only barely. The ending has no catharsis, but the build up to the stupid twist was exciting and kept my intense interest. I suppose it depends on your tolerance of conspiracy theories and overly obvious analogies to real life events in the end. If you can handle it, then this movie is spectacular. If not, then it is a flawed gem: pretty to look at but ultimately unsatisfying.