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William Bradley

William Bradley

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Tony Blair's Ghost (Writer)

Posted: 02/16/10 11:58 PM ET

Roman Polanski's new film, The Ghost Writer, had its world premiere on Friday at the Berlin Film Festival and is getting good early reviews. Count it as more bad news for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair complained last week on Fox News -- a few days before the film premiered, in fact -- that his widely panned January appearance in London before the Chilcot Inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War stirred up so much negativity because people are hungry for conspiracy involving him.

If that is so, this is the movie.


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, appearing last week on Fox News with 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, denounced Britain's official Chilcot Inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War as mere conspiracy mongering. The panel announced last week that Blair, who testified last month, may be recalled to reconcile his statements with other evidence.

I read the novel the film is based on, Robert Harris's best-seller The Ghost, last year. It's a wicked and surprisingly funny roman a clef, with an outrageous secret at its heart. While the secret (which will not be spoiled here, and comments which do spoil it will be deleted) seems far-fetched, it would provide a very logical explanation for what is otherwise hard to fathom.

Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, is a former political journalist who was close to Tony Blair. But had a falling out with him over Britain's role in the invasion of Iraq and Blair's close alliance with the Bush/Cheney White House on the war on terror.

So he wrote a novel, published in 2007, called The Ghost. It's about a forever unnamed London ghostwriter -- played by Ewan McGregor, Obi-wan Kenobi in the recent Star Wars trilogy -- of disposable celebrity autobiographies who is called in to help a charismatic and controversial former British prime minister finish his memoirs at a secluded mansion on Martha's Vineyard, the island off the Massachusetts coast. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a complex and intriguing situation involving the ex-PM, Adam Lang; his very clever wife, Ruth Lang; and Lang's top aide and possible mistress, Amelia Bly. The Langs are played by Pierce Brosnan, who made one of the best James Bonds, and English actress Olivia Williams, seen recently on American television as the complicated dragon lady of Dollhouse. Mrs. Bly is played, in Hitchcock blonde mode, by Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall, who was born in England. The film debuts in America on Friday in a few theaters in Los Angeles and New York. It will platform out to other markets in coming weeks.


Original teaser trailer for what was then called The Ghost.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that Lang's memoir as drafted is dull as dishwater and avoids what people most want to read about; namely, Lang's controversial decisions around the Iraq War and his alliance with the conservative American administration in the war on terror. Not long after the ghost arrives, Lang is indicted on war crimes charges, for supposedly ordering British commandos to snatch four British citizens in Pakistan and turn them over to the tender mercies of the CIA, who swiftly move them to Guantanamo Bay, where they are tortured.

Adam Lang is clearly modeled on Tony Blair, and Ruth Lang on Cherie Blair. Harris uses his knowledge of the Blairs to uncanny effect, bringing great verisimilitude to their portrayal.

And the events of the story are close enough to what is actually happening now -- aside from the outrageous big reveal, and the fact that Blair is nowhere near finishing his memoirs, for which he has a massive contract -- to be uncannily uncomfortable for the real life former prime minister. Blair has already had to testify once before the Chilcot Inquiry and may be recalled. Prominent leftists are calling for a citizen's arrest of Blair as a war criminal. (Which is clearly a reckless idea.) And the British government revealed earlier this month that a British resident turned over to the CIA in Pakistan was tortured in Guantanamo Bay prior to his release last year.


The original German trailer for The Ghost Writer.

Ironically, The Ghost Writer nearly never made it. Polanski was surprisingly arrested last September in Switzerland, where he's long had a home, while the film was in early stages of post-production. His utterly unacceptable behavior of more than three decades ago had suddenly come back to haunt him, and he was jailed before finally posting a multi-million dollar bond to move to his Gstaad home under electronic house arrest. There he was able to finish the film, working by long distance with his associates. As the film was about to premiere last week, Swiss authorities announced that he will not be extradited to Los Angeles after all, or at least until the question of any further sentence is sorted out.

For his part, with his appearance last month before the official Iraq inquiry widely panned and his former friend Harris's movie about to premiere, Blair took to Fox News last week to launch an extraordinary attack on the investigation.

Asked about why the inquiry was being held he said: "There's always got to be a scandal as to why you hold your view. There's got to be some conspiracy behind it. Some great, you know, deceit that's gone on, and people just find it hard to understand that it's possible for people to have different points of view and hold them reasonably for genuine reasons."

Blair's attack came as the panel said he might be recalled for more testimony to reconcile what he'd said last month with other evidence it has received.

Blair's hole actually got deeper in December. Then he was asked by BBC interviewer Fern Britton: "If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?" He replied: "I would still have thought it right to remove him [Saddam Hussein]." He added: "I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat."

Which created an obvious problem.


The American and Canadian trailer for The Ghost Writer.

When Blair at last was compelled last month to give six hours of public testimony on the origins of the Iraq War, he arrived before dawn, hours before he was due, in order to avoid the protesters. But he did not avoid the families of British soldiers killed in the Iraq War crowded into the hearing room.

He also did not acknowledge them.

Although he hardly broke under questioning, which was at most pointed, Blair struggled to justify his position in joining President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the invasion of Iraq.

Blair had sold the war on the basis of Iraq possessing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which he dramatically claimed could be deployed in 45 minutes. But there was no WMD.

In December, Blair said that he would have taken Britain to war even had he known there was no WMD. Why? Because Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy and Iraq is better off without him. Which would make more sense if he were an aspiring leader of Iraq.


The international trailer without subtitles.

In January, he refined his position. The war was justified, he said, because in the post-9/11 era any potential threat could not be tolerated. In other words, since Saddam Hussein was against the West (which had supported him in his war with Iran), and since he had technologists capable of developing weapons of mass destruction, Blair had to act to eliminate that potential threat as if it were absolutely real.

Of course, that explanation, which sounds suspiciously like that of Dick Cheney -- who, ironically, opposed Blair in internal war councils as a too liberal influence on Bush -- doesn't fly very well.

In his testimony, Blair seemed curiously unaware of the vast Iranian influence inside Iraq. Or of how the elimination of Saddam would empower Iran within the region, by removing him as a strong counterweight. Or that his dramatic claim of WMD deployable "within 45 minutes," which the public took to mean against, say, them, actually pertained to battlefield chemical weapons. Which also did not exist.

So the Iraq obstacle remains for Tony Blair.

And so he cries conspiracy as a last ditch attempt to quiet his vast chorus of critics. Which is not to say that there is not a vast conspiracy culture.

The era of the pop culture conspiracy theory began in 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and shows no sign of abating.

Now, I get a ton of comments on the various things I write insisting on some conspiracy or another, from right and left, as well as down, up, and sideways. These suggestions frequently ignore the stupidity factor, and not merely on the part of the supposed conspirator.

But one person's conspiracy is another's confidential plan. And in politics, it's often best to have a confidential plan, at least if one wants that plan to work.

Blair is simply missing why so many have such dark musings about him. He's clearly a highly intelligent, forward-looking person. A friendly person, not given to Nixonian brooding. Unlike his friend George W. Bush, who I actually rather like on a personal basis, he's not incurious or anti-intellectual in the least. To the contrary, he's an engaging, widely informed person who voraciously consumes information.

So that is the central mystery of Blair. How could such a person, who also had full access to information gathered by the world's most sophisticated intelligence apparat -- as well as information from the CIA -- have been so disastrously wrong? How could he have ignored the information that was available to him? How could he have distorted the information he had in order to sell a fool's errand of war?


The Ghost Writer TV spot.

The stain of the Iraq decision had already impacted Blair, before the Chilcot Inquiry, before The Ghost.

Blair was long viewed as the favorite to become the first president of the European Union. But that fell apart in dramatic fashion late last year.

Blair, who never officially announced his candidacy for the European presidency, made several late moves to try to find his way through the complex thicket of European politics, with calls to various leaders and a speech in Switzerland, where Polanski was imprisoned. There, in a Zurich address to corporate and financial leaders, Blair appealed to the continent's dominant center-right faction by warning against too much governmental intervention to overcome the global recession.

But it didn't work. Blair was too big a figure for some of the smaller countries and for some leaders of the larger countries with global aspirations of their own; too controversial for the left and too left for the right. And so the old political dictum that you can't beat somebody with nobody was proved wrong, at least in this instance.

Blair has had a back-up position since leaving the premiereship in 2007. He is the Middle East special envoy of the Quartet powers (US, UN, EU, and Russia).

But for all his backing for Bush, Blair was stymied in his role as Mideast envoy by then Secretary of State Condi Rice's insistence on taking the lead role in brokering an Israeli/Palestinian peace. Which she obviously did not do.

Perhaps Blair will have some better luck with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was an early ally of Blair in his role as Britain's Opposition Leader prior to his 1997 landslide election as prime minister.

In the wake of the controversy over his appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry, Clinton announced that Blair's role in the essentially stalled Mideast peace process will "intensify."

It all seemed to be shaping up very differently a decade ago.

Blair, the only Labour Party leader to win three terms as prime minister of the United Kingdom, seemed well-positioned to be the global statesman of the age. Even now at age 56, highly intelligent, charming, articulate, and mediagenic, he and his foundation are involved around the world on a host of issues, from climate change to poverty to terrorism.

There's just been one thing in the way. His alliance with Bush around the Iraq War and the war on terror.

The obstacle still remains.

It's safe to say, without any risk of cliche, that Blair is haunted by his fateful alliance with the Bush/Cheney White House.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.