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Tony Blair

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Birds of a Feather.

Could I offer one piece of serious advice?…Start thinking now about you want your legacy to be.” Having made peace with The Queen, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen once more) now contends with President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton (Dennis Quaid and Hope Davis respectively) in this brief teaser for Richard Loncraine’s The Special Relationship, written by Peter Morgan. (This is the fifth Morgan/Sheen collaboration after The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon, and The Damned United.) With this, Treme, The Pacific, Song of Ice and Fire, and Boardwalk Empire, the reasons for re-subscribing to HBO seem to be mounting.

A Ghost in Blair House.

Tho’ I doubt it will get much favorable play in Tony Blair’s household, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which I caught last Saturday, is a brisk and competently-made 70’s-style paranoia thriller that also manages to be subversively amusing for most of its run. If you enjoyed the “noir exercise” aspects of Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and you have no strong moral qualms about throwing money Polanski’s way these days, I’d say it’s definitely worth checking out. (Note: I briefly discussed my thoughts on Polanski’s criminality in my nod to The Pianist (#41) on the Best of the Oughts list two months ago. That’s still about all I have to say on that ugly subject.)

Like Shutter, The Ghost Writer is a highly cinematic thriller in-the-key-of-noir that probably works better as a mood piece than it does in terms of plot. (For that matter, once again we have a cast of ne’er-do-wells at a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, acting suspiciously under gray, portentous skies.) The film is also, not to put too fine a point on it, a resounding eff-you to Tony Blair. Based on a 2007 book by Robert Harris (Fatherland, Enigma), it clearly sets it sights on the ex-PM for getting-in-deep with Dubya and subsequently greenlighting torture in the UK.

If that makes The Ghost Writer sound heavy or preachy, it isn’t, really. The torture and “Special Relationship” stuff forms the background and connective tissue of this particular 70’s-style conspiracy, yes. But the movie cares less about the details than its does just the existence of a nefarious plot at all. In other words, just like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor, most all of the political content here is really just a device to get Ewan MacGregor’s low-key, amiable, and boozy-but-talented “Ghost” slowly and inexorably in over his head…and increasingly having to look over his shoulder.

Here, unlike the last time we saw him, MacGregor’s scribe isn’t looking for “the Story” at first so much as a fat paycheck. So, when the ghostwriter for former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) washes up dead off the coast for America, he — after being talked into it by his unctuous agent (Jon Bernthal) — puts his name in the hat as a well-paid replacement, even though he doesn’t give a whit about politics. And after getting looked over by a gruff Haldeman-ish aide (James Belushi) and an obviously sleazebag lawyer (Timothy Hutton), he somehow, miraculously, ends up with the job.

But, be careful what you wish for: Within an hour of landing the gig, Ewan’s Ghost gets mugged on the street for carrying what appeared to be a copy of the current manuscript. (It was a ringer — Nihilists, dude.) Soon thereafter, he finds himself whisked away to Lang’s Island, where he spends his days with a distracted and often visibly angry ex-PM, the beautiful-but-distant missus (Olivia Williams, who I love, but she’s too young for the part), a sultry top assistant (Kim Cattrall, doing her thing), and more security than you can shake a stick at. And when Lang becomes the center of a huge media maelstrom, on account of revelations that he authorized illegal detentions and torture when he was prime minister, well all of a sudden Ewan’s Ghost finds himself trapped in a very well-oiled and dangerous Machine…

Speaking of ghosts in machines, I’ll concede I was probably more tickled by The Ghost Writer than a lot of people might be, just because this is a movie about my trade. Who knows? Maybe cops, lawyers, and doctors feel like this all the time. Still, his irritating penchant for reading everything out loud notwithstanding, when Ewan was puttering around the island on his bike and/or typing away in his schoolboy sweaters, I confess I felt a twinge of happiness that here was a thriller-type movie where I could actually see myself in the predicament. (Speaking of which, yes, there are a lot of dramatic licenses taken with the job of ghostwriting here, but you’re not going to see me complaining to Newsweek about it. That’s what movies do.)

But, all that being said, I think The Ghost Writer has enough of a sneaky sense of humor to it that it would’ve worked for me even without the j-o-b connection. For example, one running gag throughout is that, as per movies of this type, all sorts of shady operators desperately want their hands on Lang’s manuscript. But, like the vast majority of political memoirs in real life, this ghostwritten Maguffin is so platitudinous and vapid (“My years at Cambridge…”) that Ewan’s character can’t figure out why the hell anybody wants to go near it.

And, while the actual conspiracy here is even more implausible than the last turn in Shutter Island (and, again, doesn’t make much sense given what’s come before in the movie), I chuckled at the sheer screw-you audacity of it — You’ll know what I mean if you see it. So, all in all and despite its occasional goofy turns, I found The Ghost Writer a pretty fun afternoon at the movies. I just wish that one of the film’s other driving conceits — that the world will rise up and demand criminal accountability for Dubya-era torture — didn’t seem quite so far-fetched to me as it does these days.

Thandi Rice & Mr. Not-so-Fantastic.

The first family set, Oliver Stone’s W picks up some Dubya admin hangers-on: namely, Thandie Newton as Condi Rice and Ioan Gruffudd as Tony Blair. Those are both solid. “Among the key “W” roles yet to be cast are those of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove.

The Queen II: The Joint Inheritance.

Speaking of US-international relations, with Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and rewrites of State of Play and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy under his belt, British writer Peter Morgan now plans a sequel to The Queenwhich will examine former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s relationships with U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.” Michael Sheen is set to reprise his role as the PM, although director Stephen Frears is not returning.

Blair bids farewell.

I wish everyone, friend or foe, well. And that is that — the end.So long, Tony (and good luck in the Middle East.) ‘We’re very glad to see him go, because he’s the most dangerous opponent that we’ve had in a couple of hundred years,’ former Conservative leader William Hague told the BBC afterward.‘” That may have been true for awhile, I guess. Too bad Blair decided to pull an LBJ and mar his otherwise-sound progressive legacy with an exceedingly ill-advised foreign war. But, time marches onward, so, with that in mind, Hello to Gordie and the New Labor Order.

What Rough Beast?

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.” In his final weeks as prime minister, Tony Blair addresses the problem of the media, calling it “like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.” (Full text of remarks.) “The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by ‘impact’. Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

I wouldn’t say the feral beast metaphor gets right at it — until last year, most of the major news media, in this country at least, was rather well domesticated: It let Dubya lie his way through just about anything, including building a case for war in Iraq on false pretenses, with impunity. But, clearly something is broken with “this relationship between public life and media,” as Blair put it. In the midst of a conflict that’s been dragging on longer than World War II, you’re still likely to hear more about Paris Hilton’s jail travails (Prison sucks? Our criminal justice system tends to favor the wealthy? Who knew?), Don Imus’s racist bromides (A bile-spewing racist on talk radio? Wherever did they find him?), or the winner of American Idol, to take only three recent examples, than anything of use about the status of the conflict, or our actions, there. And even coverage of the horrifying tragedy at Virginia Tech, obviously a legitimate news story, descended into exploitation almost immediately (and provoked very little understanding that this level of tragedy has become virtually a daily occurrence in Iraq.) They’re just giving us what they want, I suspect the comeback is, and that’s almost assuredly true. But, still, it’d be nice to see a little more daily recognition from our major journalistic outlets that the mass media in our society performs a crucial — if not the crucial — function in informing the electorate on current events and providing the information indispensable to maintaining an active, responsive citizenry, and that other factors should come into play in their coverage than just the corporate bottom line. Update: From the press box, Slate‘s Jack Shafer cries foul.

Carter Gets it.

“I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history.” Jimmy Carter calls out Dubya’s foreign policy as the worst ever. (As noted earlier, several prominent historians have already come to that conclusion.) “Asked how he would judge [Tony] Blair’s support of Bush, Carter said: ‘Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Apparently subservient.‘” Well, maybe he’ll do better at the Bank. Update: Or does he? Carter backs down.

New Leaders in the Old World.

Within the next few weeks I won’t be the prime minister of this country. In all probability a Scot will become prime minister of this country and that’s someone who built one of the strongest economies in the world and who I’ve always said would make a great prime minister.” With recent tough defeats for Labor in Scotland punctuating his closing weeks, Tony Blair announces he will make an announcement tomorrow concerning his forthcoming resignation and likely replacement by Chancellor Gordon Brown. And, across the channel, France elects Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president, a conservative who’s seen as both US-friendly and Dubya-friendly. Meanwhile, E.J. Dionne wonders what recent events mean for European — and American — progressives. Update: Tony Blair announces his last day: June 27.

Mother Russia’s Uncle Boris.

“‘He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform and in defending it played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia’s history,’ Blair said.” Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007.

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