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

"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

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-]