Film review: The Ghost Writer

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When Robert Harris’s book, The Ghost, was published in 2007 it startled many members of the British intelligentsia, not least because New Labourite Harris appeared to have turned on his Leftist comrades.

In it a biographer is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a former Prime Minister, Adam Lang, who soon becomes indicted for war crimes thanks to a resentful ex-colleague he fired as Foreign Secretary. In the nature of the war, the alleged crimes, Lang’s ancestry, personality, ideology, wife, and slavish subservience to an incompetent American president – not to mention the fact that he is “writing” his memoirs for an equally vast sum – the similarities with Blair are hardly camouflaged.

It is sheer coincidence, however, that the director of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski, is a figure beleaguered and trapped as much as Harris’s Lang is: held under quasi house arrest and unable to leave the country for fear of being arrested by the authorities.

Polanski and Harris are friends, and since the latter co-writes the screenplay it will come as no surprise to learn that the film of the former is a literal adaptation of the novel – line by line of dialogue, page by page of plot. The prime concern now, though, is the greater number of people who will be subjected to Harris’s plot as it unfolds on the big screen; one which serves to confirm what the conspiracy theorists believed all along (except in one crucial respect). As laughable as some plot turns undoubtedly are, such as unraveling the CIA via Google, and the disclaimer inside the front cover of the book that “Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,” it remains a movie unserious enough to be taken seriously.

In the book and subsequent film, fiction draws closely on fact and moulds the two. Harris pushes restlessly, some would say bitterly, at the line that separates the two. In other words, he wants to have his cake and eat it: asking readers and viewers to separate act from character (for obvious legal reasons) while aware that act is inseparable from character (he is, after all, writing about real political acts, indeed a political situation, that has come about under Blair’s premiership).

Harris elucidates our conundrum in an interview with the Daily Mail:

“So Adam Lang is not Blair, but he shares some of Blair’s characteristics, clearly, and the dates are more or less the same, as well as the war and the impending possibility of prosecution. And also the sense that here is a Prime Minister who would have done nothing that would have potentially offended the Americans. He might as well have been an American in Downing Street.”

The last sentence is the all-important one here. If the book and film are light as a Blair-character portrait, it is certainly stronger as an indictment of the Blair years; in particular the perceived PM’s lap-dog relationship with George W. Bush. As the ex-Foreign Secretary, Richard Rycart, challenges the ghost:

“Come on,” he says. “It’s not a trick question. Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn’t have approved of.
“I have friends in Washington who just can’t believe the way that Lang ran British foreign policy. I mean, they were embarrassed by how much support he gave and how little he got in return.”

Journalists and novelists have every right to question whether or not Britain has an independent foreign policy; whether the UK has, in effect, become a ghost to the US. Prominent British broadcaster James Naughtie has even written a book called The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency (2004). Yet cinemagoers are warned: the fictional device invented for the purpose of settling a political score turned off readers.

For good or ill, though, it is Blair’s political philosophy that explains his unflinching support for White House policy. In his article, “‘I’m Proud of the British Empire’: Why Tony Blair Backs George W. Bush,” Inderjeet Parmar “shows that Blair is a liberal imperialist who believes that the world needs to be remade by an active Anglo-American alliance” (The Political Quarterly, 2005).

It was Blair, too, let us not forget, who warned about an evil dictator going unchallenged and needing “to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later,” at the Economic Club of Chicago in 1999, some 21 months before Bush entered the Oval Office.

Given the historical record, then, you wonder why Harris and Polanski did not focus their creative energies on the tyrannical regime of, say, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This is all the more perplexing considering what Nick Cohen intelligently illuminates in his Standpoint article, “The Golden Age of Conspiracy” (June 2009). “[P]aranoid politics” and “fraudulent history” propagated by those in the West, says the British columnist, undermines “the victims of real conspirators with the power to kill” in the East.

After all, what are Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, the military junta’s Burma and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran if not states of terror held together by a conspiracy theory (be it British colonialism or American imperialism)? In short, Western conspiracies help Eastern conspirators.

Unchallenged, the belief that the British Prime Minister was a right-wing freelancer, a sleeper in No. 10 or a Manchurian Candidate will consume popular culture. Such “counterknowledge,” as one author writing on the subject of conspiracy theories labels it, is dangerous given that it distorts history and leads to disastrous decisions today. “[C]onspiracy theories about past events usually carry with them a political agenda for today,” historian Stephen E. Ambrose is quoted as saying in David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History (2009). In this context that means not only an end to the use of the term Special Relationship, as the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for earlier this year, but a reluctance by democracies to confront autocracies in the near future. It is apt to conclude with a quote from the start of the very last chapter in Lang’s memoirs:

“Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University has written of the unique importance of the English-speaking peoples in the spread of democracy around the world: ‘As long as these nations stand together, freedom is safe; whenever they have faltered, tyranny has gathered strength.’ I profoundly agree with this sentiment.”

Andrew Roberts, author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (2006), agrees with this sentiment and concludes his very own book by writing that today “they are the last, best hope for Mankind.”

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