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Retrospective: The Films Of Paul Greengrass

Retrospective: The Films Of Paul Greengrass

“I really do believe, with a great, great passion, in the possibility of really good films being made at scale and in the mainstream,” Paul Greengrass said to Empire, rather ironically on the occasion of the release of his least financially successful Hollywood film, 2010’s “Green Zone.” But it outlines what seems the guiding principle of Greengrass’ work, that there is a way to make intelligent, politically relevant, “grown-up” films that appeal to a mass market. 

It’s a balance he has tried to strike in all of his bigger films: where the ‘Bourne’ sequels were primarily escapist spy-movie genre fare, Greengrass imbued them with a very contemporary, distrustful, anti-authoritarian edge and where the likes of “United 93” and “Bloody Sunday” were retellings of traumatic, incredibly charged true stories, he was never so overwhelmed by reverence that he forgot to thrill and move and well, entertain. His perspective seems to be that the viewer has both a pulse and a brain, and it is possible to raise one while still engaging the other. And this week sees the opening of a film that very much proves that point, the outstanding “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks (our A grade NYFF review is here), which falls squarely into the sweet spot territory that Greengrass has more or less conquered and colonized: the politically controversial, based-in-true-life tale told with jolting, documentary-inflected immediacy.

The docu-realist style that Greengrass largely pioneered for Hollywood’s use does have its detractors, however, with the characteristic perpetually moving, jerky camera occasionally inducing a kind of seasickness, and sometimes muddling the geography of a scene. But we’d argue that’s the price we pay for that unique feeling of being right in the heart of the action, down at eye level with Jason Bourne, or milling amongst the protesting Derry crowd, or tracking a target through a deserted Iraqi bazaar at night or trapped on a boat staring down a Somali pirate brandishing a machine gun. So yes, we’ve the greatest of respect for how Greengrass, in his best moments, is defined by his ability to combine the cerebral and the visceral, a rare talent that is showcased brilliantly in “Captain Phillips” but has been demonstrated time and again over the course of his career.

So come with us as we take a look back over that short career to date: Greengrass may not have the longest theatrical filmography in the world, but it is remarkable for its consistency in terms of vision, theme and quality.

Captain Phillips” (2013)
Greengrass’ new movie may arguably be his finest. Based on the real-life 2009 hijacking of a shipping freighter a few hundred miles off the coast of Somalia, “Captain Phillips” is the perfect Greengrass vehicle, one in which his political concerns (mostly about the cost of globalism and its effect on third world nations) and his love of kinetic suspense set pieces, meld beautifully. Tom Hanks plays the titular captain, who we see for only a few brief moments in his “everyday” life before he takes command of the boat. When a band of Somali pirates, led by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, board the freighter, Phillips has to act, mostly in service of the protection of his crew (who are huddled somewhere in the bowels of the ship — shades of “United 93“). These early moments are compelling, for sure, thanks to a crackling script by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “The Hunger Games“), but then things become decidedly more intense in the movie’s second half, when Phillips becomes a captive of three of the pirates in a small lifeboat. If that wasn’t enough, the second half of the film also introduces the element of the Navy, who have discovered the situation and are trying to diffuse it, an element that piles even more tension on top of an already jittery powder keg of suspense. 

 It would be easy to paint the pirates as one-dimensional villains but Greengrass, showing extraordinary restraint and placing his trust in a handful of compelling non-actors, makes you not only understand the pirates’ motivations (even when they’re doing really horrible things) but has you feel for them, too. Hanks gives his best performance in at least a decade, and Greengrass’ technical skill has never seemed more polished (save for one clunky dialogue scene between Phillips and his wife, played fleetingly by Catherine Keener that is as dramatically inert as anything the filmmaker has ever done). In fact, this is the perfect kind of based-on-a-true-story narrative for Greengrass, because while it was a phenomenon that was fairly well covered on the news, the particulars have always remained fuzzy to most people, which gives him more creative license with the material (a nearly week-long ordeal is condensed into a matter of hours here) and gives the audience the added punch of feeling like they are discovering something, too. And, god, does it ever do a number on the viewers — even after the meaty midsection, in which the suspense is turned up to an almost unbearable degree, there comes a post-climax moment that’s just too good to ruin here, but may leave you in tears. Greengrass, like many great action directors before him, is acutely aware of how character is defined by intense situations, but here you get the impression that Captain Phillips wasn’t just defined; he was transformed. [A]

Green Zone” (2010)
Why did “Green Zone” flop? (Perhaps not as badly as you might think–it recouped $96m worldwide off a $100m budget, but still). Whatever the reason, it wasn’t that it’s a badly made film, or that the style in which it was made was uncommercial. In fact, it represents a direct straight line from the mega-successful Bourne movies, not just in its star, Matt Damon, but in its look and feel (similar, but arguably calmer and more sophisticated here), and while Greengrass is too intelligent and careful a director to ignore or warp the complexities of the Iraq War, he still does a fine job of fictionalizing and repackaging them for maximum clarity and dramatic impact. In many ways, “Green Zone” tries to be a synthesis: it’s Greengrass engaging with hot-topic politics while also incorporating straight-up thriller-ish elements in service of a narrative that might have just a little bit more “importance” than the continuing adventures of an amnesiac superspy. But despite the skill with which it’s made, and the convincing way it presents a kind of Cliff Notes version of the WMD scandal at the heart of the nation’s justification for going to war, “Green Zone” just doesn’t leave a very lasting impression, as moment-by-moment exciting as it may be. 

Damon plays US Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy who begins to smell a rat as his unit is led on one wild goose chase after another in the search for weapons of mass destruction. Stonewalled by his superiors, he is approached by a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) who both have suspicions of their own, and parts of the puzzle. When a local Iraqi man (“United 93” actor Khalid Abdalla) volunteers information that a prominent Baathist meeting may have been held nearby, Miller follows up the lead which brings him into conflict with a corrupt Pentagon official and the soldiers loyal to him. It’s all done with great skill and the action sequences are shot with precision and immediacy, but perhaps the ultimate problem with “Green Zone” is that it’s really about a hunt that turns up nothing, an intelligence source who turns out to be fabricated and an expose of the truth that doesn’t change the fact that an unjustified war was waged for many years thereafter — which is, like the real-life scenario, pretty unsatisfying. All that said, as an example of Greengrass’ evolving style it’s typically heady, tense and gripping stuff, but for once the thorny real-life politics and the depressing wider truths of the situation he depicts feel like they get in the way, and ultimately diminish the film. And so it ends up neither a totally convincing speculation about real, shocking events nor a wholly satisfying Bourne-esque thriller in its own right, and instead falls somewhere in between. In a career characterized by a hard-edged intelligence that matches his punchy style, “Green Zone” feels strangely compromised. [B-]

The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)
The third entry in the ‘Bourne’ saga (and the second directed by Greengrass) is ultimately probably the weakest of the franchise but it still features some of the very best moments in the series. “The Bourne Ultimatum” is ultimately more of the same, with Matt Damon‘s amnesiac secret agent still struggling to come to terms with his past (and make things right in his present). The movie’s wafer-thin narrative, which was cobbled together while in production (with work by expert cobblers Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), definitely contributes to the overall feeling of déjà vu. The nearly cubist sense of kinetic action cinema that Greengrass established in “The Bourne Supremacy” continues here, except without the surprise and in a marketplace already cluttered with imitators. Sometimes, like during a scene of dialogue between Bourne and the brother of his murdered girlfriend (played by Daniel Bruhl), the camera fidgets for no apparent reason, shaking around the actors’ faces like a nervous bumblebee, something that brings the entire enterprise dangerously close to self-parody. Not that you have time to even register this while watching “The Bourne Ultimatum;” the film’s biggest asset is how quickly it moves. It’s just that this time, some of the international cross cutting and blurry flashbacks feel like the series treading water instead of actual forward momentum. 

But then there are those unforgettable set pieces, like an early foot chase in London’s Waterloo train station where Bourne has to remote-control a nervous newspaper reporter played by Paddy Considine, not to mention the climactic car chase in New York City, a dazzling bit of action cinema made all the more compelling by the tactile nature of Greengrass’ cinematography and editing (you practically want to brush the broken glass off of your face when it’s over). There’s also one of the very best human moments in the whole franchise, which is when Bourne sees off his reluctant accomplice (played by Julia Stiles), after she’s had to change her identity after nearly being killed. “It gets easier,” he says in quiet resignation, about the life she now has to lead. It’s a beautiful little beat that demonstrates Greengrass’ ability to find truthful character beats in amongst the high-stakes action. But while the director gives the movie his all, you can still feel a certain creative restlessness; it’s apparent that he has come to the end of his time with the ‘Bourne’ franchise and wants to get out of there. For the next few years, Universal would try to woo the filmmaker back to fold, but he remained steadfast, and while rumours of his involvement with ‘Bourne 5’ swirled as recently as a few months ago, Greengrass was as quick as ever to quash them. [B]

United 93” (2005)
Less than five years after the events of September 11th, Paul Greengrass wanted to document one of its key stories. And the response was more or less outrage. At the time few could believe that the guy (a British guy at that) who had made “The Bourne Supremacy” would be taking on 9/11, especially when the events were still so fresh in peoples’ minds (supposedly a New York area theater removed the trailer from rotation after audience members complained). But then, of course, when people finally saw the film, they were blown away, with critics embracing the picture and Greengrass snagging his one and only Best Director Oscar nomination to date. Greengrass’ approach was deceptively simple: he cast mostly unknown character actors in most of the major roles and gave many of the roles to non-actors who were just doing their jobs (flight attendants acting like flight attendants, for example). The script was based loosely around transcriptions from the actual event but filled out through elaborate rehearsals. Greengrass even tried to stage the action in as close to “real time” as possible, with the film’s 110 minutes tied closely to the length of the doomed airplane’s flight, from takeoff to crash. And while the film’s title had to be changed from “Flight 93” to “United 93” to avoid confusion with a television movie that was airing around the same time, this ended up being a brilliant swap: the “United” of the title doesn’t just refer to the airline, but to the mentality of those on the plane, who made a decision to try and stop something they knew was far bigger than themselves. 

And it’s that incredible humanity that Greengrass captures, but with spartan writing and direction; his documentary-style camera pinballs around the airplane, refusing to indulge in forced sentimentality or soaring moments of heroism. Yes, what they did on that airplane was amazing, but Greengrass doggedly refuses to trumpet the event as anything other than ordinary people coming together to do the right thing ( extraordinary as it is). And it’s this pared-down simplicity that makes “United 93” even more heartbreaking. As a filmmaker, Greengrass is at his best when he makes the human drama as compelling as the suspense or action set pieces he crafts and this is a prime example of that, one in which characters are developed through action more than dialogue and emotions exist naturally instead of being artificially forced. “United 93” remains the best theatrical film released about 9/11 and one of the finest accomplishments in Greengrass’ career. [A]

The Bourne Supremacy” (2004)
It’s easy to forget that the Bourne franchise was anything but a surefire success at its inception. Indeed, it was anything but a franchise initially, with the first film, “The Bourne Identity,” featuring a director and a star both unproven in the area of action, and being based off a seemingly defunct Robert Ludlum series that had been filmed before. And it was such a self-contained story that even Matt Damon, at the time, felt the character was unlikely to be resurrected. So while all kudos have to go to Doug Liman, Damon and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the series’ godfather, in many ways) for rustling up the surprise smash of “The Bourne Identity,” to Greengrass (and Gilroy again, of course) have to go a lot of the laurels for making Bourne a viable continuing property. “The Bourne Supremacy,” to which he was attached after Liman dropped out (citing friction with Gilroy that would ironically also bedevil Greengrass) it was something of a leap of faith, as Greengrass had never handled anything of this size and scope. But he hit it out of the park, establishing not just a hugely lucrative franchise, but arguably consolidating and refining a camera-as-part-of-the-action style that had never really been employed on a tentpole before. 

‘Supremacy’ in fact, may be held up as a kind of sequel gold standard in what it achieves: it expands the universe of the first film and establishes an aesthetic so recognisable that when “Casino Royale” breathed new life into the Bond franchise, it was widely regarded as having done so by liberally borrowing certain elements from its younger spy-movie brother. It’s not overstating it to say that in imbuing the action sequences with that in-the-moment feel, Greengrass found a whole new way to make Hollywood action movies. And this is all the more impressive because, in purely story terms, ‘Supremacy’ is pretty weak, with the kinetic, breathless filmmaking not just distracting us, but somehow making us not really care, that the plot makes very little sense. Bourne, living in peace in Goa with his girlfriend Marie, is dragged back into the spy life by wily old Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) who wants to both frame him for a crime that will cover up his own misdeeds, and to kill him (because that proved so successful the last time). Really the idea that Abbott couldn’t find any better patsy than the unkillable superspy who had bested him so often before is quite daft and we–oh wait! Brutal car chase! Gritty Berlin locales! Bourne using a rolled-up magazine as a weapon! The flash and dazzle of Greengrass’ breathless, sometimes disorienting but undeniably exciting shooting style covers a multitude of narrative sins, and strong performances across the board, especially from Damon as the taciturn Bourne who here doesn’t even have a girl-Friday foil to humanize him, make the whole into a kind of irresistible package. [B+]

Bloody Sunday” (2002)
Greengrass’ fearlessness in tackling true-life topics of deep controversy is a defining characteristic of his back catalogue right from the start. And in that vein, just a couple of years after he’d outlined one of the UK’s most notorious race crimes in TV movie “The Murder of Stephen Lawrence” he took on “Bloody Sunday,” a taut dramatization of that most incendiary of historical events: the killing of 14 unarmed protestors in Derry (thanks to James for the correction) by British paramilitaries on “Bloody” Sunday, January 30th 1972. The massacre, which lies like a scar across the history of 20th-century British/Irish relations was widely believed instrumental in radicalizing the working-class Catholic segment of the population and driving enrolment in the IRA, and is therefore a landmark event in the early days of one of the most intractable and drawn-out political conflicts in modern memory. Greengrass’ film wisely keeps its focus narrow, though, and mediating events through the eyes of Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), the Protestant MP who organised the civil rights march that devolved into violence, the director even this early shows his flair for creating tension and drama from true-life events, while remain sensitive to their complexities. 

With trademark shaky, handheld camerawork that lends everything that recognisable, documentary feel, he seems able to present a point of view that positively bristles with righteous anger without ever falling into the trap of whitewashing the victims, or wholly demonizing the perpetrators (except in one case, perhaps). And so we trace the parallel narratives of three groups: the march organizers; the British military authorities put in charge of the march’s containment; and the people caught in the literal crossfire, particularly one of the young men who was destined to be one of those killed (and also, as the film alleges, hamfistedly framed when nailbombs were planted in his pockets as he lay dying). Relatively unconventional at the time, it’s an early example of the filmmaking style for which Greengrass would become known, and while he would go on to glossier, grander Hollywood projects, the grit and nerviness of his approach here seems ideally suited to what must have been for him, as it was for all of us living in that part of the world at the time, a story that hit much closer to home. Winning the Golden Bear at the Berlinale (tied with “Spirited Away,” in fact) and the Audience Award at Sundance, it remains an outstandingly compelling evocation of just how quickly and catastrophically a tinder-box situation can become a conflagration. [A-]

The Theory of Flight” (1998)
Every filmography has an outlier or two, and even Greengrass’ relatively short CV boasts something of an oddity in “The Theory of Flight,” a film possibly better known to U.S. audiences now as being the very last one reviewed by Gene Siskel on “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies” prior to his death. But while Siskel’s thumb was up, we’d have to fall more in line with the downturned digit from Ebert on this one: it’s a story that, however well acted and sensitively handled, is just too whimsical and sentimental (not adjectives we use a whole lot with Greengrass). However, just because it’s the closest thing to a boy-meets-girl romance that we’ve had from the director, doesn’t mean it was free of more controversial aspects. It follows the wheelchair-bound Jane (Helena Bonham-Carter) who suffers from Motor Neurone Disease (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the States) embarking on a quest to lose her virginity, in which she enlists the help of Richard (Kenneth Branagh), a directionless man going through a sort of nervous breakdown, who had been assigned to her as part of his community service sentence. 

So yes, a terminal disease, physical disability (Jane’s speech is also deteriorating) and sexuality: never an easy sell (“The Sessions” probably being one of the more recent high-profile films to give it a try), and the film is to be commended for its ambition to be upfront and often humorous about the issue. It’s strong, too in its portrayal of Jane as an independent, witty and occasionally very annoying human being, and not someone entirely characterized by their ailment. But Branagh’s Richard doesn’t fare so well – -we don’t ever quite understand the reason for his fugue state and so the self-consciously winsome subplot which sees him building a plane out of reconstituted artworks that he had been working on prior, feels completely contrived, as does his sudden decision, halfway through, to commit armed robbery as part of some sort of madcap adventure involving a gigolo for Jane. In the decency of its intentions and Bonham-Carter’s truly moving and remarkably un-maudlin performance, the film hints at what it should have been, but by pushing the focus onto Richard, Jane is a bit sold out by the end. And in its closing moments it moves into truly treacly and predictably territory where, for all its earlier flirting with transgression, the film devolves into a by-the-numbers “inspirational” disease-of-the-week weepie. It’s truly an odd one for Greengrass too, and boasting none of his visual hallmarks and featuring nothing of the political context that marks the majority of his work, it’s actually directed with something close to anonymity. [C]

More Greengrass: Aside from Greengrass’ TV work, including real-life dramas “The Fix” about a famous football scandal; “The One That Got Away” which details an SAS mission to destroy a SCUD missile facility in Iraq; and “The Stephen Lawrence Story” about a notorious racially motivated murder in London in 1993, there’s an omission from the above filmography: “Resurrected.” Greengrass’ debut feature from 1989 stars David Thewlis as a British Falklands War soldier who is believed dead, but returns home alive, only to be accused of desertion. In theme and outlook it certainly seems a more characteristic Greengrass film than “The Theory of Flight” that followed and Thewlis, under sensitive direction, is one of our favorite actors, so we’re gutted that this one proved impossible for us to track down in time. You can watch a small, promising snippet of it below though, before telling us what you think of Greengrass and how we’ve assessed his theatrical features, in the comments.

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