This is a perfect movie, certainly one of Polanski's best, and I'd even say it's the equal of Chinatown. It'll never be as influential, both because Polanski's not the man for this cultural moment like he was for Chinatown's and because it's not as innovative. But in its look, its feel, its expertise, its acting, and its emotional and political depth, this is just as strong. (I even think Polanski cleverly alludes to Chinatown in the characters of the Chinese gardener and cook - it's a meaningful allusion, too, suggesting that here, too, things are not as transparent as the glass walls suggest.)
That's a huge claim, but I'll stand by it. I loved every frame of this film, right down to the magnificent ending, with what happens happening just off-screen, handled with an understated grace that only accentuates the horror.
Just as he did with Chinatown and Frantic, Polanski manages to create a sense of noirish dread without resorting to the deep shadows associated with noir. There's a lot of black and gray in this film, but they're clean, oceanic hues arising organically from the film's setting (I know it wasn't actually filmed on the Vineyard and the Cape, but he perfectly captures the look of the Massachusetts coast in winter), and the dignified, impenetrable blacks of security vehicles. Instead of hidden corners of dark houses we get huge picture-window vistas. And still we get things sneaking up on us - the news helicopter made me jump out of my seat.
The performances are pitch-perfect, too. Pierce Brosnan's ex-PM is a great creation, making cunning use of all Brosnan's Bond charisma (and in a possibly metafictional way - does Brosnan's resumé predispose us to believe the ghost writer's suspicions about him?). Ewan McGregor is perfect as his anonymous eponymous (or is he?) character. Olivia Williams, so brilliant in Dollhouse, is devastating as the ex-PM's wife - sympathetic and scary in turn. Her character, of course, may actually be who the title refers to, in a number of ways (the figure of the political spouse has been getting some excellent fictional coverage lately - I've been quite enjoying The Good Wife, too).
I guess it helps if you're a bit paranoid about the National Security State(s). Someone I saw this with was skeptical that the CIA had that much reach. If only.
Jim Emerson has two excellent posts about the movie here and here (the first one is actually commenting on someone else's praise, the second one is hardcore analysis - awesome).
It's worth mentioning, I think, that I missed this in the theaters but caught it at the David Minor Theater here in Eugene, which is a theater pub, the first I've ever been to. It's a small one, and at least this film was actually a DVD (Blu-ray, I think) projected on a big screen. I was apprehensive about this experience, but as it happened, I loved it. The picture quality was excellent - I can't say I noticed any difference from an actual projected film, and within minutes I forgot I was watching a DVD (and as Roger Ebert has repeatedly pointed out, the picture quality in your average multiplex can really suck - I've seen things projected on dim bulbs, out of focus, with lousy sound).
And showing it from a DVD meant we were blissfully free of commercials, PSAs, and previews. We payed a low price to watch a movie, and that's what we got.
What about the pub thing? The deal here is that you can order before the movie or during (you step out into the lobby to order). Once or twice during the screening, therefore, a waiter came in and called, quietly, somebody's name to deliver their order. Distracting? Certainly, and that's probably why, despite the fact that it was dinner hour, only a couple of people ordered anything. But to be honest, my impression was that this was a movie-loving group of people: quiet and attentive, and so even with the food deliveries it was a much less distracting environment than your average multiplex, with its texting teenagers and people talking to the screen.
We'll probably go back.