Our peerless film columnist Kathy Shaidle is away this week, and so I'm honored, after a stint this week as Rush's guest-host, to step up and guest-host for Kathy, too. Miss Shaidle will return next weekend:
The 2020 election is still being counted and recounted, but I'm already sick of being asked if Nikki Haley's a shoo-in for '24. I've become a wee bit antipathetic to fixed-term government: One of the pleasing aspects of the Westminster system (even in its bloodier iterations, such as Australia's) is the way yesterday's towering colossus can suddenly become today's roadkill - Mrs Thatcher, David Cameron, Malcolm Turnbull, etc. Tony Blair's fall was more protracted, but, if anything, rather more total. Far more than the aforementioned, he dazzled, and so it took a while for both the dazzled and the dazzler to realize the lights had died and would never be coming on again.
But ah, you should have been there in his heyday! If ever there was a solid Tony Blair voting bloc it was surely the massed ranks of British novelists. They loathed Thatcher ("Mrs. Torture," as the pre-fatwa Salman Rushdie used to call her with his customary light wit), yet "old Labour," with its knuckle-dragging union bosses and old-school class warfare, wasn't entirely their bag, either. Solution: Tony Blair's Third Way. He was "New Labour," just like Bill Clinton was "New Democrat". It was all the rage for a while: perhaps even now in a bombed out encampment in Syria some wannabe caliph is proposing to rebrand himself as New Isis.
If you had to pick a day when it all went south for Blair's literary cheerleaders, it would be September 11th 2001. That afternoon London time, as the twin towers were crumbling in New York, Jo Moore, a British civil servant, watched the TV and fired off an email to her colleagues in the Department of Transport: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury." That was the New Labour way: the dark arts of spin, media manipulation and modish rebranding. (Blair is the guy who once opened some or other summit with a rock version of "God Save The Queen".) But in the rubble of lower Manhattan the British prime minister found something that for once he didn't want to spin, and in the end he was the one who got buried.
Initially, my old Telegraph colleague Robert Harris was with him, as he had been since the early days. A third of a century back, Harris was a protean "new left" voice on Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times and a freshfaced backbencher on the make called him up to propose lunch at L'Escargot. Very trendy, very metropolitan, and as Blair told Harris, "It's absurd the anti-metropolitan bias in the party. We've got to rethink all this."
And so he did. On election night 1997, Harris covered New Labour's landslide victory from a seat across the aisle from the great man on the Blairs' private plane. When he wasn't counselling the young prince on the remaking of Britain, Harris was a bestselling author of historical fiction. His huge hit Fatherland is one of the great alternative-history novels: what if Hitler had won the war? Anyway, having studied one great evil, Harris thought he saw another in the perpetrators of 9/11. And, for a while at least in the fall of 2001, his views on the enemy were so robust that The New Statesman and other leftie journals started nominating the poor chap as the runner-up to obvious psycho warmongers like yours truly for the Dangerous Idiot of the Week award.
And then came Iraq, and the millions of protesters in the streets of Europe, and the failure to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. And, like so many other former cheerleaders, Harris soured on Blair. Few of his artsy pals, however, have exacted as exquisite a revenge on their fallen idol as Harris does in The Ghost: A close friend who pre-Iraq was rumoured to be the PM's choice for official biographer instead cranked out in nothing flat (after Blair's resignation) a roman à clef devoted to what the bien pensants regard as the "tragedy" of the Golden Boy's self-detonation.
The central figure in the drama is "Adam Lang", a recently retired British prime minister who came in like a lion and went out a-lyin' - over Iraq, terrorism, rendition, etc. As described in an early chapter, the shelf of biographies in the Charing Cross bookstore begins with Adam Lang: Statesman for Our Time and works its way up to Would You Adam and Eve It? The Collected Lies of Adam Lang ("Adam and Eve" being Cockney rhyming slang for "believe"). Both volumes are by the same author, who evidently has undergone the same process of lucrative disillusionment as Mr Harris.
As that vignette suggests, Robert Harris writes high-concept novels with an eye to the movie deal. And, while for the most part they rarely materialize, The Ghost made it - filmed a decade ago by Roman Polanksi, widower of Sharon Tate and admitted rapist of thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer. Polanski negotiated a "plea bargain" with the prosecutors only to find the judge letting it be known around town that he was going to overturn it, as a result of which the director skipped and has been a fugitive from US justice for four decades. That meant the picture could not be filmed where Harris had set it - London and Martha's Vineyard - but in very approximate stand-in locations, Berlin and the island of Sylt just off the German coast at the Danish border. On screen, the latter certainly feels a lot bleaker than the Vineyard in winter, and is an appropriate visual substitute for the frosty prose of the book.
The fictional Adam Lang, like the real-life Mr Polanski, does not roam as widely as he did. While visiting America, he discovers that war-crimes charges have been laid against him at the International Criminal Court - which means he could be arrested upon landing at Heathrow. And so he finds himself holed up on the Vineyard out of season, in a rich Yank benefactor's stark modernist excrescence of an ocean-view mansion. If 10 Downing Street is an HQ masquerading as a home, the beachfront bunker drops all pretense: it's just aides, guards, the cold wife (Olivia Williams, excellent), the staffer-mistress (Kim Cattrall, almost as good), and somewhere in the hollow center a beleaguered Mr Lang. It is, of course, the former PM who is now out of season, abandoned by the crowds and insecure about his continued access to once fawning Washington bigshots. Even in its occasional excursions to the supposedly cozy colonial inn, the film is as cold and austere as the landscape, as if the cheerlessness of the bare branches and frost-heaved tracks has seeped into screenplay and camera.
Polanski has changed Harris' title, from The Ghost to The Ghost Writer. I prefer the original (retained for the UK release only - hence my deployment above). The Ghost is ambiguous as to its eponymous character: On the one hand, it's the narrator (played on screen by Ewan McGregor) - the new ghostwriter Mr. Lang hires to write his autobiography after the old one, ah, dies in mysterious circumstances. Yet it's also the ex-Prime Minister himself, not just in the sense that, out of office, he's a wraith, the living dead transported vampirically from meeting to meeting in the planes of wealthy Americans. In a more basic sense Adam Lang is less an enigma than an ectoplasm. As Harris writes of his Blairite dazzler early on:
Nothing he uttered that night warrants reprinting. It was almost a parody of what a politician might say after a terrorist attack. Yet, watching him, you would have thought his own wife and children had been eviscerated in the blast. This was his genius: to refresh and elevate the clichés of politics by the sheer force of his performance.
Pierce Brosnan, a much better actor than he's given credit for, gets this to a tee: He doesn't play a prime minister, he plays a man playing a prime minister, and by now it's such second nature he does it even in repose, relaxing on the sofa, enjoying a single malt on the plane. The great man, the consequential man, the man in the arena endures through "the sheer force of his performance". Such personal glimpses as there are are likewise the peculiar status concerns of performers. In the book, his wife Ruth, greeting him upon his return to Martha's Vineyard, asks how it went in New York. "Great," he burbles. "They gave me the Gulfstream Four - you know, the transatlantic one, with the beds and the shower."
I regret that line didn't make the movie, but the ones that did aren't bad. The playacting grates on Ruth: "It's like being married to Napoleon on St Helena," she tells the ghostwriter, tramping the raw, windswept, deserted beach as if watching the horizon for a rescue ship. It occurs to Ewan McGregor's character that Adam Lang has always liked acting - he did a lot of am-dram at Cambridge - but, oddly, there's not a lot of evidence of any interest in politics. Brosnan rages at McGregor that he doesn't want any of the greasepaint stuff in the memoirs; he's tired of being portrayed as merely an actor, and cites the headline of the Times leader calling on him to quit: "Kindly Leave the Stage." You could say it of Blair, and of Cameron and of Boris, and likely of whoever's next.
Harris' roman à clef was an act of revenge, filleting a two-decade friendship absolutely ruthlessly: "That was when I realized I had a fundamental problem with our former prime minister," the narrator informs us, as he sits down to ghost the Lang "autobiography." "He was not a psychologically credible character. In the flesh, or on the screen playing the part of a statesman, he seemed to have a strong personality. But somehow, when one sat down to think about him, he vanished."
Harris was digging into what for him and his chums was the great conundrum of the post-9/11 years—why the most gifted progressive reformist prime minister the Labour Party had ever produced wound up the stooge of a right-wing fundamentalist Texan warmonger, and without getting anything in return. This is, to put it mildly, an unpersuasive précis, but Harris is a skilled writer, and his tale is well told, right down to a surprise ending that reveals the totality of the novelist's disenchantment with his old lunch companion.
On screen, it's all a bit more generic and diluted and the standard not-so-thrilling thriller stuff with swirling rumors of a CIA agent recruited at university, planted in a safe constituency and groomed for Downing Street. But the acting holds you, including a 95-year-old Eli Wallach in a penultimate appearance as an old coot alert to the holes in the spin. Oh, and Tom Wilkinson gives a very convincing turn as the sort of longtime CIA asset besieging and flattering George Papadopoulos all over London just four short years ago, back when political conspiracies were not in plain sight in the counting rooms of Pennsylvania.
~The Mark Steyn Club is now in its fourth season. As we always say, membership in the Club isn't for everybody, but it does support all our content, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it's also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle. More details here.
Oh, and if you're really sick of the lockdown and looting and 'lection, we have a fabulous cruise coming up next year, which is just the best way to bust out of this thing.