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Film / The Ghost Writer

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The Ghost Writer, also known in the UK as The Ghost, is a 2010 political thriller based on the novel by Robert Harris, directed by Roman Polański and starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Kim Cattrall.

An unremarkable and unnamed ghostwriter (McGregor) has landed a lucrative contract to redact the memoirs of Adam Lang (Brosnan), the former British Prime Minister (based on Tony Blair). After dominating British politics for years, Lang has retired to the United States with his wife Ruth (Williams). Soon, Adam Lang gets embroiled in a major scandal with international ramifications that reveals how far he was ready to go in order to nurture the UK's "special relationship" with the USA. But before this controversy has started, before even he has closed the deal with the publisher, the ghostwriter gets unmistakable signs that the turgid draft he is tasked to put into shape inexplicably constitutes highly sensitive material.

Not to be confused with the children's television series Ghostwriter. See this article on That Other Wiki for an explanation about the word "ghostwriter". Also, not related with the Australian psychological horror novel.

This film provides examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: Heavily, heavily implied to be the case with Lang.
    The Ghost: People want to know what it's like to be the Prime Minister. What it's like to have so much power. What it's like to be hated.
    Lang: Thank you so much.
    Ghost: Uh, and loved.
  • Ambiguous Innocence: At the beginning of the movie, after Lang's lawyer, Sid Kroll and the publisher hire him, Kroll gives the Ghost a manuscript from another client to consider as his next project. The Ghost is mugged for that manuscript shortly afterwards, suspects the muggers were after Lang's manuscript, and wonders if Kroll deliberately gave him the other manuscript in order to see if anyone did try to steal it. The idea isn't impossible, but does seem unlikely due to none of Kroll's behavior later on referencing this, or indicating involvement with the people who really want to suppress that manuscript.
  • And You Thought It Was Real: When The Ghost tries to open the memoir file, the alarm goes off. It happens to be a security drill.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: It's not directly phrased as a question, but the sentiment is very much present. When confronted with allegations of torturing terror suspects, Lang responds with a Motive Rant that if he had his way, there would be two lines at the airport; one where nobody's civil rights had been violated in any way, and another where the government had done everything it could to keep the people safe, and then they could see which line Rycart (who had been condemning the civil rights abuses) would put his kids in. See Strawman Has a Point on the YMMV tab.
  • Be as Unhelpful as Possible: Both Adam and Emmett are reluctant to talk about their years at Cambridge; since that was when Emmett recruited Adam as an agent.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: It is strongly implied at the end that the writer is hit by a car, possibly even on purpose as the car actually accelerates, though what happens after that is anyone's guess.
  • The Cameo: Eli Wallach as the old man who tells the Ghost about the neighbor who saw flashlights on the beach the night Mike McAra died... and subsequently fell down the stairs and went into a coma.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The car left on the ferry by Mike McAra.
    • As well as the phrase "the beginnings". It's said several times throughout the movie, until the Ghost finally realizes its significance at the end.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The guy at the hotel.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: The Ghost is trying to expose the conspiracy, but he's also kind of an asshole and rather shortsighted and prone to idiotic decisions.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: Every time the TV is on, it delivers relevant information for the plot (for example the fact that the British government support the ICJ investigation of the extraordinary renditions).
  • Conspiracy Thriller: The protagonist discovers a conspiracy and soon people try to kill him because he knows too much.
  • Curiosity Is a Crapshoot: The Ghost manages to find out virtually all of the secrets over the course of the film. Though he refuses to run when he realizes what is occurring. In the end, he presumably dies.
  • Corrupt Politician: Adam Lang, who is implied to have been widely regarded as a corrupt incompetent long before the allegations of war crimes came out.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Ghost.
  • Deep Cover Agent: Ruth Lang is a CIA agent who influenced her previously apolitical husband into becoming Prime Minister and making decisions beneficial to the U.S.
  • Eagleland: Type II, (with the government, although the civilians mostly get a pass). The American government, or at least the CIA, is portrayed as unscrupulously manipulating foreign leaders for their own illegal agendas, and their refusal to honor the judgment of International war crimes courts (along with other powers that mainly consist of dictatorships) is mentioned. The old man played by Eli Wallach also describes the current President (an apparent party to all of this) as an idiot and comments that it's a shame someone like Lang got involved with him. The American publisher is also a bit boorish, albeit reasonable, while hiring the Ghost.
  • Evil, Inc.: Paul Emmett's company, Hatherton.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After killing Lang, the sniper (wearing his dead son's desert camouflage) drops his rifle and snaps to attention, allowing himself to be killed by security.
  • Fictional Counterpart: Halliburton/KBR to Hatherton.
  • Foil: The Ghost serves as this to Lang, both being unpleasant men hiding something. Lang is a well-known public figure who puts up a charismatic front to hide his less savory aspects and only breaks the mask when under stress, and is covertly involved in various illegal activities. The Ghost is completely unremarkable and his entire job revolves around being unknown, and he's rather upfront about being a Jerkass, but occasionally shows signs of deep passion and is hiding an amateur investigation to expose Lang's criminal activities.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The car accident. The last we see of our hero is him walking off screen onto a road. The camera stays in place, and seconds later a car follows. A screech of tires, a loud thud, and the papers of the manuscript start flying...
  • Government Conspiracy: A former British Prime Minister is a CIA asset. The CIA murders those who know too much.
  • GPS Evidence: An actual GPS device.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Paul Emmett, who recruited Lang's wife and manipulated him into a political figurehead, kicking off all of the international intrigue and possible being behind the attempts to suppress the manuscript.
  • He Knows Too Much: The protagonist, his predecessor, and an unfortunate witness.
  • The Hero Dies: The eponymous character himself at the end.
  • Hollywood New England: Used sparingly.
  • Hope Spot: The two guys that are following the Ghost to kill him reach the ferry ten seconds too late. No, wait...
    • Our ghost giving Ruth a toast after figuring out who she is, and walking away victoriously. The feeling only lasts for about 10 secs. Sure is awesome though.
  • Idiot Ball: That's right, ghost writer, let The Mole know that you know her secret, even though you know she can and will have you killed for knowing it. And certainly don't tell anyone else. Even if you believe that they won't risking killing you in England and even if you call someone on your cell phone off screen, what difference would it have made? You have no evidence other than the manuscript for your claims, given that both the previous ghost and Rycart have died. That is in and on itself not really you won't have even that. Better dealt with in the novel, but yeah, for the movie, very Idiot Ball.
  • Implied Death Threat: When the Ghost brings up McAra's death to Emmett, Emmett does not seems to be surprised. He says that death by drowning "seems agonizing". His farewell words are that "you might end up deeper in the woods and may never be seen again".
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: The black car after the Ghost meets with Paul Emmett.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Nearly every time the Ghost can catch a breath from the intrigue, he drinks. Ruth also needs to get drunk.
  • Jerkass:
    • The Ghost himself, who's caustic, gruff, and anti-social. The best thing you can say about him is that he's at least trying to do the right thing and makes no bones about who and what he is, unlike the villains.
    • Arguably Emmett as well.
  • Job Title: The protagonist is a ghostwriter.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Adam Lang. While he is killed, he gets treated as a hero and a martyr.
    • Ruth Lang too, depending on the outcome of the Ambiguous Ending.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: The Ghost.
  • Large and in Charge: The publisher is a fat man whose decisions leave no room for argument.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: What the Ghost believes happened to his predecessor.
    • And what apparently happened to someone who may have witnessed the crime.
    • Also possibly happens to him too in the finale.
  • The Man Behind the Man: In fact the woman behind the man; Ruth.
  • Meaningful Name: The Ghost is something of a ghost in the system; he has no real connections, is constantly on the move, and he doesn't even get a name.
  • The Mistress: Amelia Bly.
  • The Mole: Ruth, Adam Lang's wife.
  • Most Writers Are Writers
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Adam Lang is a very obvious stand-in for Tony Blair (former British Prime Minister, involved in a war in Iraq, friend of the United States, a "personality over politics" figure) note 
    • Ruth Lang, in a less obvious way, to Cherie Blair.
    • Richard Rycart to Robin Cook (they look like each other, they both have disagreement with the Prime Minister about foreign policy).
    • The U.S. Secretary of State in the film looks a lot like Condoleezza Rice.
  • No Name Given:
    • The eponymous ghostwriter, identified only as "The Ghost".
    • Same with the grieving protester who eventually shoots Lang, who is identified only as "the Stranger" in the credits, and the old man played by Eli Wallach.
  • No Party Given: Averted; Lang is shown to be Labour, as is his real-life inspiration Tony Blair.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Lang's aide is always very strict about the Ghost not assessing the manuscript or using any of the existing pages of it. Subverted at the end where she admits that she didn't have any problem with that herself and only said that due to orders from the security detail.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: Adam Lang considers to get help from the UK cabinet. Ruth advices him to call in his lawyer instead. Which is clearly in her interest, since she is The Mole.
  • The Oner: The paper passing from hand to hand until it reaches Ruth.
  • Only Sane Man: John Maddox, the book's publisher, serves as this during the Ghost's interview. While Kroll is Ambiguously Evil, Ricardelli is a Smug Snake and a try hard, and the Ghost and Roy Quigley spend the entire meeting bickering, Maddox is the only one to keep his head in the game and generally comes across as a reasonable fellow, if a bit boorish.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Kroll and the publisher, during the meeting where they discuss hiring the Ghost.
  • Parenting the Husband: A consistent plot point is how Adam Lang has stopped taking advice from his wife. This becomes very important by the end of the film.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Roy Quigley, the head of Rhinehart Publishing's London division, clearly doesn't have as much authority as he thinks and spends the Ghost's interview with him, Maddox, and Kroll bickering with him.
  • Protest By Obstruction: The protesters against Lang's war crimes.
  • Punny Name: Lang.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The story is based on the extraordinary rendition program of the Bush administration.
  • Run for the Border: The Langs live in the United States; officially for fundraising, but actually because they are outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court... and because they are protected by the CIA.
  • Scenery Porn: The seaside mansion.
  • Secret Society Group Picture: Used with Everyone Went to School Together to help the Ghost connect the dots.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Our ghost protagonist gets killed offscreen without accomplishing anything.
    • The book has less of a Downer Ending and is more ambiguous: The Ghost figures out the mole's identity at his home, and gives it to his girlfriend (who doesn't appear in the film) in case he's killed.
      • No, the book has just as much of a Downer Ending: The Ghost figures out the mole's identity at his home, and gives the book itself to his girlfriend (who doesn't appear in the film) in case he's killed. Given that the book is indeed published (it is what you are reading!) it is evident that The Ghost has been killed, just as in the movie.
  • Sleeping with the Boss's Wife: The Ghost sleeps with Mrs. Lang, the wife of his employer. it's implied he does things like this a lot.
  • Smug Snake: The Ghost's oily agent Rick Ricardelli is a rare version of one of these who is one-hundred percent on the protagonist's side.
  • Stealth Pun: (while holding up a USB thumb drive) "We can get 100 books on here, and it can be copied in a flash!"
  • Stupid Evil: The villains. The evidence the titular ghost writer uncovers is pretty tenuous. It's the villains' own efforts to deny the evidence and kill anyone who uncovers it that convinces both the Ghost and his predecessor that they're really on to something. If the villains had just decided to brazen it out with "yeah, so we know each other. So what?" there would be no movie.
    • In particular, the hitmen who follow him to the ferry, clearly intending to kill him as they did his predecessor. It never occurred to them that a SECOND ghostwriter dying in the same manner as the first would be bound to raise suspicion?
      • Lampshaded by Rycart, when the Ghost expresses reluctance to get on the plane with Lang:
        He can't drown two ghost writers, for God's sake. You're not kittens.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Lang is shot in the head by the old British protestor while getting off his private plane, while in the middle of giving the Ghost an Implied Death Threat.
  • Take That!: One of the scenes in the novel is a publishers' meeting where the Ghost gets the contract to write Adam Lang's memoirs. One of those present rants about how two of the UK's best selling novelists - "that ex-army psycho and the actress with the tits" - are ghostwritten. That ex-army psycho would be thriller writer Andy McNab, and the actress with the tits would be Katie Price, better known as Page Three Stunna Jordan.
  • Third Act Stupidity: See Idiot Ball.
  • Too Dumb to Live: So your predecessor in the job died in very suspicious circumstances, and the only witness has suffered an 'accident' that left her in a coma. After finding this out, the ghost writer not only doesn't run a very long way away, but decides to start shagging the main suspect's wife. Who is also his employer's wife.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: Amelia does not wear her ring, claiming it's so big it trips off alarms when it goes through airport security. Subverted, in that we're led to believe that she's going to become a romantic interest for the Ghost. Instead, she turns out to be Lang's mistress, while the Ghost ends up having sex with Mrs. Lang.