Roman Polanski’s literate suspenser (about a Pop novelist who’s hired to punch up the staid memoirs of a politically controversial ex-Prime Minister) got a lot of critical buzz, but hardly made a peep commercially. Both responses make sense. Polanski, with author Robert Harris, tries to squeeze a paranoid ‘70s-style political-thriller into a classic Hitchcock mold, but in spite of the elegant craftsmanship and lux casting, too much effort shows. There are some beautifully managed set pieces - the second act gets remarkably scary dividends from a recalcitrant GPS; the quiet threat of a two-faced country host right out of Hitch’s 39 STEPS/’35; and a game of cat & mouse with a car ferry on a strict schedule - all played in a thrilling yet believable manner rarely seen in these Bourne-again days. The acting is all superb, special kudos to Pierce Brosnan for investing his PM with a mix of wit, arrogance & detachment, and to Eli Wallach for just being there. (94 and counting!) Still, it’s hard to buy into the set up. Ewan McGregor’s writer wouldn’t have taken (or even been offered) this rush job, especially after that sudden attack on the street.* Anyway, if you want to pull off a Hitchcockian dose of guilt & dread, you can’t make your McGuffin a serious political football. As Hitch might have said, 'That’s no McGuffin!’ And using the CIA as your omniscient villain? The way terror is controlling today’s events, we’d all feel safer if the old CIA just knew what the heck was going on. It makes Polanski’s world view look dated. And that goes for the CHINATOWN/’74 twist ending, too.
*In a roundabout way, he does play out a favorite plot hook; the second-rater who doesn’t know that he only got the job because he sucks, and then comes thru with the goods.