Got a Problem With Roman Polanksi? See The Ghost Writer Anyway. It's A Masterpiece.

05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Best of times, worst of times.

The Academy Awards sucked so bad that, for the first three hours, the liveliest segment was James Taylor singing "In My Life" while we watched pictures of the recently departed. In the tedium, I found myself snapping to attention during the commercials and wondering: Why does the CEO of Sprint wear a t-shirt under his dress shirt? Will the people who rack the toilet paper so it rolls from the bottom refuse to buy that roll-top tissue? And, of course, how can I survive until the iPad goes on sale?

Directed as if there hasn't been a single technical innovation since the split screen, featuring unfunny jokes and a tone-deaf script -- but wait, wait: Perhaps a bad show seemed worse because, just a day earlier, my wife and I saw the Roman Polanski thriller, The Ghost Writer.

This movie is the exact opposite of the Academy Awards -- and of all the contemporary films that equate suspense with bombs going off, cars launched off elevated highways, vampires sinking their fangs into teen virgins and slaughter by the hundreds. The Ghost Writer is brisk, sophisticated, with snappy dialogue, recognizable adult emotions, flavored with a healthy dollop of cynicism, beautifully photographed and framed; as Polanski films go, it's in the near suburbs of Chinatown. Which is -- no need to take my word on this, it's a common view -- one of the twenty five best movies of the last half century. Which makes The Ghost Writer a safe bet for many "best of 2010" lists.

The film is playing in only 137 theaters, so you may not even have heard of it. Or, if you have, it's because you may have read some pundit arguing that it's wrong to support a director who, in 1977, drugged a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson's house and then had several kinds of illegal sex with her. The aftermath of that appalling event is also ugly: Polanski plead guilty, but, fearing jail, fled the country. He's lived without incident in Europe for three decades, starting a new family and directing films. Then the Los Angeles authorities had him jailed as a fugitive; he finished editing The Ghost Writer in a Swiss cell.

I'm not in the Hollywood crowd that argues Polanski is a changed man and has been sufficiently penalized. Do the crime, do the time, I say; equal justice for all. But if I start grading culture by assessing the moral character of the people who create it, I'm going to be spending a lot of time sitting in a quiet room. I'm not, for example, fond of Mel Gibson's understanding of Christianity; at the same time, I wept at his performance in We Were Soldiers.

On the assumption that you too can handle a schizy reality -- Polanski did a bad thing and hasn't quite resolved it; he's made a magnificent movie -- let's press on to the film itself. Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris, it's the story of a writer who's never named. That's appropriate; his skill is writing the memoirs of celebrities. He's fast. And good: The last book he ghosted --- He Came, He Sawed, He Conquered, the memoirs of a magician -- raced to the top of the best-seller list. Now he's called in to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, former British Prime Minister. He has just a month to turn the manuscript in.

Consider how Harris and Polanski launch the story. The book and movie begin on the ferry, crossing to Martha's Vineyard on a blustery winter's day. The ferry reaches the dock, empties. Except for one car, which doesn't move. Where is the driver? It's a mystery. It's also great moviemaking.

We quickly learn about that car and its driver. Lang has been holed up in a beach house on the Vineyard. And, coming across on the ferry one night, Michael McAra -- his drunken ghostwriter and long-time aide -- went overboard and drowned. A suicide? Or something worse? Interesting questions. But there's no time to think about them; the manuscript beckons.

Let's not be coy here. The Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan, is a stand-in for Tony Blair. His attractive, chilly wife is a version of Cherie Blair. And the fresh trouble Adam Lang is in -- allegations that he helped the CIA kidnap four Pakistani terrorists, the sort of thing that The Hague might consider a war crime -- isn't unbelievable, at least in England, where many citizens regard Blair as a lapdog for George Bush.

For the ghostwriter, these charges couldn't come at a worse time. Lang is angry and distracted; instead of working on the book, he races down to Washington for a photo op with the American Secretary of State, a woman who just happens to be African-American. Slowly, painfully, the ghost begins to make connections between Lang's new problems and McAra's death. And the tension mounts...

If you are seeing parallels between The Ghost Writer and Polanski's own situation -- a man accused of terrible crimes, living in exile, trying to clear his name -- give yourself ten easy points. If you see a connection to Chinatown -- a less than professional detective, way over his head, stumbles into a conspiracy so corrupt he's unprepared even to recognize it -- give yourself ten more. (Extra-point question: The Asian man sweeping the decks at Lang's beach house -- what's his equivalent in Chinatown?)

The filmmaking is confident, organic, efficient at the highest level. And why not? Although Polanski is now 77, the director who made Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist still has his A-game. In an interview, Pierce Brosnan expresses his admiration:

The lens was never far from his hand. I sat on the back of the camera one day...His viewfinder was burnished with time, the numbers were worn away and they were all penciled in on bits of gaffer tape...He'd be setting the camera up and having a private conversation with himself. You'd be going for the take and he'd be, 'No, no, stop, no,' and then, 'Give me the camera, I want the camera, the f--ng camera.' He could freak some people out. But that was his passion.

You can take the politics seriously or not. We did, leaving the theater convinced -- with no more evidence than the way this fictional plot works out -- that The Fix is always in. Later, we revisited that conclusion. But it's the ultimate praise, isn't it, when a movie becomes so real that we take it seriously?

The Ghost Writer is fun and provocative. It's a reminder that great filmmaking can be made in a living room, that a sharp conversation can be as deadly as a bullet, that music and cinematography don't have to assault the ear or poke you in the eye to be thrilling. It is, simply, an old-fashioned masterpiece.

In our culture, a masterpiece is an endangered species. Yes, The Ghost Writer will be a DVD. But in a theater, with an audience --- there's still no comparison.

Fill the tank, if you must. But get there. And soon.

[Cross-posted from]