The Ghost Writer a Bit too Transparent

The Ghost Writer

Directed by Roman Polanski
RP Films, 2010, 128 mins.
* * *

The Ghost Writer is the latest directorial effort of controversial director Roman Polanski. Though much of it is supposedly set on Martha’s Vineyard, the bulk of production work took place in Germany because—as any tabloid reader knows—Polanski has been in self-imposed exile since 1977; he was on the lamb from a U.S. warrant for statutory rape until his arrest in September of 2009.

The Ghost Writer could have benefited from a dose or two of controversy. It’s a well-acted and compelling thriller, but not one that can withstand much scrutiny. The film grafts a thriller to standard film noir tropes, beginning with a classic too-good-to-be-true setup. A struggling British writer (Ewan McGregor) is offered a cool quarter of a million dollars for one month’s work; all he has to do is fly to the United States and help former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) whip his memoirs into something readable. The money overcomes the inherent creepiness of taking over from another ghost writer who fell from a ferry and drowned. As always happens in such films, things go wrong from the get-go. Our hapless protagonist endures a grueling trip to an offshore island, where Lang paces like a caged animal in an ultramodern compound that’s filled with cool gadgets but feels like a prison. Secrecy and security are more than protocol—they’re obsessions­—and the air is filled with frosty exchanges between Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and Lang’s personal secretary Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), whom Ruth openly implies is sleeping with her husband. To top it off, the ghost has been on the job for less than 72 hours before Adam Lang becomes the target of a major human rights investigation by The Hague for having illegally turned over of terror suspects to a CIA torture team. As things spin more and more out of control the ghost writer turns private investigator, begins to suspect that his predecessor was murdered, and traces the trail to a retired American professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) who might be a high-level CIA operative.

As noted, the acting is first rate. McGregor walks a fine line between cynicism, charm, and paranoia, while Brosnan plays former Prime Minister Adam Lang with appropriate dashes of egotism, attraction, and smarm. Olivia Williams is superb as Ruth; we know that she’s the brains behind Adam, but she never tips the hand revealing why she endures such an empty suit. Cattrall surprises as Bly and pulls off a subtle physical duality in which she’s at once sultry, but with frumpiness looming on the horizon. As for the underrated Tom Wilkinson—his American accent is so good and he plays Emmett with such aloof condescension that you’ll have to remind yourself he’s neither a Yank nor a pampered superstar prof.

The film’s major weaknesses lie in unimaginative filmmaking. Though the plotline is based on a work of fiction, there’s little doubt that Polanski took an autobiographical approach to the subject and cast surrogate selves in the roles of men being hounded and pursued. As such, the film is often heavy handed with scenes in which Polanski strikes with a gauntlet when a small glove slap would do. Polanski still knows his way around the camera and there are some stunning shots, but the film’s look is ultimately less an homage to film noir than a grab bag of its clich├ęd elements: crashing waves, thunder claps at tense moments, anxiety-enhancing fog, Hopperesque landscapes, lighthouse beacons presaging revelations…. Polanski’s hackneyed overuse of such tired symbols draws attention to continuity errors, such as how the island can be utterly barren at one moment and teeming with protestors the next.

A final problem: Although I agree that the CIA causes global mayhem, I’m tired of films in which the agency is cast as the omnipotent cloak-and-dagger power behind every throne. Such beliefs may play well among Europe’s paranoiacs, but those who live in the United States might counter that the word “intelligence” in CIA is a misnomer. Its real track record—as opposed to its imagined role—suggests that the CIA tacks toward the incompetent end of the intelligence spectrum. The CIA can’t locate Osama bin Laden, for instance. Hell, it took American intelligence thirty-two years to put the collar on an internationally known filmmaker who has been hiding out at press conferences across the globe!


Is General Mills Marketing Just to Dummies?

Check out the General Mills come-on as it appeared in millions of Sunday paper advertising inserts last weekend. Notice anything?

No, I’m not on a rant about pushing junk food. I’ve never eaten a Totino’s pizza roll, so I can’t aver if this product is good or not. I do, however, hope that General Mills, which owns the Totino’s product line, pays more attention to baking than it does to hiring advertising firms. If we take this ad literally, there is just one kid in the entire world for whom Totino’s is his or her favorite. The ad very clearly states that it is a “kid’s favorites,” not “kids.’” General Mills scores twice on the illiteracy scale: once for misuse of an apostrophe and again for noun/adjective disagreement.

Sure, we’ve all made typos. It’s also true that the misuse of apostrophes has become ubiquitous and that many Americans—that teeming segment of the population we might call “dummies”—thinks it should should use apostrophes to make plurals and has no idea of how to use apostrophes to make a contraction or show possession. But not even dummies are stupid enough to spend thousands of dollars to spread their ignorance to millions (unless they do so collectively in the form of a political movement).

General Mills apparently has no such sense of shame. I don’t know if this ad was done in house or if it was subcontracted to an expensive outside agency, but any way that one rolls out the dough, General Mills paid serious money to launch a coupon campaign seen by millions of sets of eyes. Apparently none of the eyes viewing the prelaunch version was attached to a literate brain. Maybe it’s true that junk food makes you stupid, but I’d like to think that General Mills simply screwed up. Here are three simple suggestions to avoid future embarrassment:

1. Make sure that all advertising personnel has at least a high school education.
2. Ask each person working on an ad to answer the following questionnaire: “Are you a moron? Circle Yes or No." If any circle “Yes,” it would be wise to look elsewhere.
3. When launching a major campaign that costs lots of money, spend another $25 or so to hire a proofreader. (The Tostino’s ad only had eleven words, so General Mills could probably have gotten a discounted rate.)

I’ve assumed that General Mills wants its ads to read correctly. It’s possible that I’ve misinterpreted the company’s intent and that it wants its products to be consumed only by dummies. If that’s the case, congratulations!


Democrats Should Carterize Republicans

Is Professor Wagstaff running the GOP?

As he often does, Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles got it right. A recent offering (see illustration) shows an elephant—the Republican Party symbol—preparing a response to President Obama’s upcoming Supreme Court nominee. The president hasn’t actually made a choice yet, but Toles is no doubt prescient that its response will be “No!”

Think he’s exaggerating? The day the cartoon hit the paper Republicans announced their intent to oppose the president’s forthcoming bank reform bill. Mitch (don’t call me “Der Fuhrer”) McConnell is attacking it as a “bailout” bill that will cost taxpayers money even though, in truth, there’s not a dime in spending in the proposal. It deals entirely with oversight of abuses, regulating reckless investment patterns, creating a consumer protection agency to—among other things—curb usurious credit card charges, and liquidating failed banks. Shall I mention that most Republicans, including McConnell, actually voted for the real bailout plan last year? The truth is that the GOP opposes the bill because the dreaded “R” word—regulation—is involved, one that would put a crimp in the freewheelin’ style of their corrupt banker buddies.

The GOP has become a withering, trumpeting pachyderm stuck on one note: No! They remind me of Quincy Wagstaff, a character played by Groucho Marx in the 1932 film Horsefeathers. To his trustees Professor Wagstaff, the recently appointed president of Huxley College, explains his governing philosophy by singing, “Whatever it is, I’m against it/No matter what is or who commenced it/I’m against it.” What’s going on here? I’m used to the Democrats self-destructing, but in recent years the GOP has taken over the whiners’ pulpit. They’re actually making inept Democrats look competent by comparison.

Here’s what the Democrats should do in the fall elections: Carterize the Republicans. No, that’s not a typo; I did not mean cauterize. The reference is to Jimmy Carter who, in 1978, delivered a speech now dubbed the “malaise” speech. It was, in many ways, prescient. It warned Americans that the energy crisis was real and permanent. It told them they needed to conserve, live within their means, and look to the future instead of the past. Americans hated the speech—it was a real downer, the facts be damned. In 1980 voters elected sunny Ronald Reagan, who told them what they wanted to hear. Democrats need now to paint the Republicans as Carteresque naysayers who don’t believe in America’s potential. It shouldn’t be hard to do—hell, the GOP is handing it to them gift-wrapped.

Pundits have made a big deal out of a so-called “conservative resurgence” since Reagan, but the truth of it is that Republicans have only ruled by scaring the bejesus out the public. Reagan scored because of the ruined economy in the wake of OPEC boycotts and because of the Iranian hostage crisis. His successor, George H. Bush, managed a dirty campaign in which fear of crime (Willie Horton, anyone?) and flag-burning obscured his lack of ideas. Newt Gingrich touted his oh-so-brief “Contract with America” at a time in which Clinton scandals (Whitewater and sexual) weakened the Democrats, and George W. Bush flat-out stole the 2000 election and would have been a single-termer had it not been for 9/11, which he milked until people finally noticed that the emperor had no clothes. If fear has run its course, the Republicans are in big trouble.

What’s becoming patently obvious is that the Republicans don’t have any ideas. Tax cuts? Booooooring! We all know that little dodge is simply a smokescreen for looting the treasury. Culture wars? Hate to break the news, but most Americans don’t want the Christian Right in charge. (Sarah Palin’s current favorability rating is just 25%.) The war on terror? Both parties agree on that one and it hasn’t gone well under either. So what’s left? Well, there’s always attacking Big Government, a ploy that sounds really good until we downsize by cancelling stimulus projects, curtailing student loans, slashing highway projects, and making grandma pay more for her Medicare. Republicans can’t even manage fear properly these days. Did anyone catch the act of Pastor Wiley Drake, the Orange County, California whack job who wants Republicans to pray for the death of all 219 Democrats voting for health care reform? (He also belittled serious car accident injuries suffered by Senator Reid’s wife and daughter. He should be glad Harry Truman is dead; Truman would have punched the little fascist in the mouth!) News Flash: Health care passed. In related news, scientists confirm that the sky has not fallen.

All we know is that the GOP is opposed to everything—it’s the party of NO! Nastiness and naysaying isn’t leadership—it’s irresponsible demagoguery. If Democrats have an iota of common sense, they will ride the GOP’s own tidal wave of negativism to victory. The fly in the ointment? It would require that Dems actually have common sense.


Should the Pope Be Held to Toyota Standards?

If you want his head...

Is it just me, or are others disturbed by the fact that more piety-based outrage has been heaped on Toyota for stuck accelerators than on the Vatican for harboring sicko priests? What does it say about Western society when more people want the plattered head of Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda than the early retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, a man who may have personally intervened to protect pedophiles?

What about this cowboy?

Historians would assuredly note that quite a few poorly chosen candidates have been elevated to the papacy, an office often filled more for political reasons than for the sanctity of the recipient. That is certainly the case of the Vatican’s current Big Cheese—he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Truth from 1981 to 2005; in essence, he was Vatican’s point man in quashing dissent. Benedict XVI isn’t the worst or most unqualified pope by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is he a man of simple faith and piety.

But back to Toyota: There have been around 2,000 complaints of sudden acceleration involving Toyotas sold in the United States and investigators are looking into 37 fatalities. Should we care about this? By all means! The majority of cases thus far investigated have proved meritless, but even if 1% are accurate it more than justifies the recall and the whopping $16.4 million fine the National Highway Safety Council slapped on the automaker for stymieing research into potential problems with its accelerator pedal. But consider also that we’re talking 2.3 million vehicles involved in the recall. Even if every complaint had been true, the number of problem cars is less than .00008 of Toyota’s U.S. sales for 2009-2010.

By contrast, in the United States there have been 10,667 allegations of clerical abuse involving children in the years between 1950 and 2002, the latter year that in which the Vatican finally enacted a proactive policy to deal with allegations. The old method was to sweep them under a brocaded tapestry. This is exactly what Pope Benedict is accused of having done; back in the days when he was Joseph Alois Ratzinger he allegedly failed to act on numerous allegations of clerical abuse, including a Texas priest accused of molesting three sub-teen boys. Alas, he can’t be put under oath for any of this as an even sleazier person—former President George W. Bush—granted Ratzinger immunity from liability.

A total of 4392 priests have been accused. The pope insists there has never been a large problem in the Catholic Church and is on record as saying that abuse involved less than 1% of the clergy and that Catholic rates are lower than that of other denominations. By the numbers, maybe. There are roughly 68 million Catholics in the United States, thus the abuse-to-believer ratio is around .00015. If one considers how many priests there were in the fifty-year period, the abuse percentages appear to be small. Those studying the issue argue that the true abuse rate is at least twice as high as the pope claims, and perhaps five times higher. But let us assume, just for a moment, that the pope’s figure is correct. An abuse rate of .00015 is higher than Toyota’s alleged accelerator pedal failure rate. Are we saying that pedophilia is less of a concern than car problems? Is Ratzinger the spiritual leader of Catholicism or an accountant poring over actuarial data? On what moral authority does he stand when lecturing others over reproductive rights, the ordination of women, or cultural relativism? I don’t recommend trying the “papal infallibility on matters of faith” angle; any historian can tell you that this hoax didn’t exist until the 1870 Vatican I council. (Nor is the 'Catholic -Church-isn't-as-bad- as- others' much of a moral argument!)

Drag out any argument you want, though. I say that the very least we can do is hold pope to the same standards to which we’d hold an automaker.