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There've been quite a few movies made in the last few years about the war on terror and the excesses of the Bush administration, but Roman Polanski's “The Ghost Writer” is the first to turn that backdrop into a spook story whodunit. It's not exactly about the Bush administration; no, it's more about an entirely fictional retired British prime minister who has been the U.S.'s biggest foreign enabler in the war on terror and yet does not resemble Tony Blair in any way, pinky swear.
Our not-at-all-Blairlike PM (Pierce Brosnan) is writing a memoir of his political life. Like most politicians and celebrities, he's hired a ghost writer to do the work for him, but his ghost writer has just washed up on shore, having taken a drunken fall (or, perhaps, jump) off of a ferry. The publisher is demanding a quick resolution for the book, so they hire a new ghost (Ewan McGregor) to come up with a workable manuscript in just four weeks.
This new ghost (I don't believe he's ever given a name) finds himself flung into a personal and political quagmire: a narcolepsy-inducing manuscript left by his predecessor, a political marriage on the verge of collapse, and now new accusations of war crimes against his boss. Within days, McGregor's ghost becomes convinced that the previous ghost's death was not entirely unassisted and that there may be considerable political value to the book, though he'll be damned if he can see what.
“The Ghost Writer” is a fine, smart and gripping mystery, something of a rarity any time of year, doubly so right after the Oscars. There are shades of some of the smarter spy stories of the modern era (Norman Mailer's “Harlot's Ghost” comes to mind) tucked neatly into the frame of a classic detective story. I halfway hoped that Hercule Poirot would come lumbering in like some giant, snorting bipedal pug to waggle an accusing paw at the CIA.
The cast is nearly all excellent — only two actors, Jim Belushi and Kim Cattrall, seem out of place here, and they smell a bit like directorial vanity picks to me, as if Polanski were looking for a challenge to showcase his own skills at manufacturing sow's ear silk purses. And he mostly does — both are the best performances I've seen out of either actor. The rest of the cast is very good to excellent, and the direction is, well, Polanski on his game.
There's a twist at the end that isn't terribly twisty, I'm afraid, and that's one hell of a shame, as it is supposed to be the big whodunit reveal, but Polanski mostly saves it with a very pithy, very tidy, nicely symbolic finish that I won't ruin for you. On the whole, this is a big win and very likely an Oscar contender.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few months, you know that this may well be Roman Polanski's last film for some time. Looks like he's going out on a high note.