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World in Action: A Paul Greengrass Retrospective

Written by Jonah Jeng on July 28, 2016 

Paul Greengrass 2

With Jason Bourne arriving this week, we’re looking back on the career of director Paul Greengrass. As the person who single-handedly popularized the technique of “shaky cam” for the new millennium, Greengrass has seen his signature style emulated in action films as wide-ranging as Quantum of Solace and Taken 2. While so many of these pictures exploit the visual chaos of handheld camerawork to mask lazy fight choreography, Greengrass has always wielded the aesthetic with visionary purpose, whether that purpose be visceral, political, or both.

Indeed, shaky cam may be Greengrass’ most recognizable trademark, but it is the filmmaker’s purposefulness in confronting social and political issues that most fully unites his work past and present. Prior to making feature films, Greengrass worked for ten years at World in Action, a British investigative current events program known for its forceful and unorthodox journalistic style. Leaving a trail of controversy in its wake, the program accomplished multitudes over its 35-year lifespan, including exposing government-level bribery and exonerating six innocent people wrongly convicted by the British criminal justice system.

It would appear this job environment rubbed off on Greengrass. Most of his films, to varying degrees, portray individuals falling victim to systemic corruption and misconduct, while his propensity for making docu-dramas and tapping real-world anxieties through barely fictional narratives speaks to his desire to engage with the world. Through it all, Greengrass maintains the professionalism of a reporter, identifying strengths and weaknesses on both sides of a conflict even when he is building a case against a particular group or groups. For evidence, he resorts not to propagandistic filmmaking but, rather, well-documented historical evidence and pathos that feels genuinely human rather than cheaply manipulative.

In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Greengrass claimed, “If there’s a thread running through my career, it’s World in Action — the phrase as well as the programme.” It is a strikingly astute observation from a filmmaker about his own work. Watching Greengrass’ films, one gets the impression of history being both depicted and made; of real-world events taking shape around the director’s cinematic interpretation of them. In the motion of history unfolding via celluloid and of Greengrass’ intervention into this history as an artist, “world in action” is a perfect description of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Needless to say, Jason Bourne‘s premiere couldn’t come soon enough.

The following article covers Greengrass’ filmography in chronological order. One title, The Fix, is missing, due to the lack of copies in circulation. That film chronicles the British betting scandal of 1964, in which various football players were jailed for attempting to rig the results of matches. In other words, its story sounds perfectly in line with Greengrass’ directorial tendencies.

Resurrected (1989)


Though more aesthetically conventional than Greengrass’ later work (in an interview with The National Film and Television School, the director admitted that his earlier films were shot based on how his younger self thought “grown-ups” would have shot them), Resurrected nonetheless anticipated these movies by exhibiting the same tendency for bringing startling perspective to contemporary issues. Setting its story at the close of the 1982 Falklands War, a territorial dispute between Argentina and the UK that the latter won, the film’s early scenes are filled with choruses of “Rule Britannia!” and drunken revelry, indicating a nation in celebration. Resurrected‘s overall tone, however, is far from celebratory. Following the character perspective of Kevin — a soldier who, returning home after being presumed dead, is accused of deserting his platoon — the film generates menace from within an air of festivity. As glances of mistrust and passive-aggressive condemnation escalate into violence, it rapidly becomes a deconstruction of a national victory, directing the viewer’s attention to darker places hidden behind the high produced by the drug of nationalism.

As Kevin, David Thewlis gives a performance marked by closed body language, darting eyes, and near-inaudible dialogue uttered through barely parted lips. This physical and emotional fragility is understood to arise in part from shell shock, but it is also clear that the character’s reticence is simply a part of who he is. When Kevin’s broader-shouldered, thicker-muscled platoon mates challenge his claim to innocence almost as a reflex, we sense that this rejection began even before the whole return-from-the-dead incident took place. And when the residents of Kevin’s town turn a cold shoulder toward him, we realize that they likewise have bought into the illusion of the perfect soldier, a schema Kevin does not fit.

By the time the gut-wrenching climax arrives, Greengrass’ directorial debut has turned into a horror film in its depiction of what unchecked nationalism can do to the individual who deviates from the norm. Despite occasional forays into clichéd sentimentality (the portrayal of PTSD is especially hackneyed), Resurrected works all too well as a wake-up call whose impact has scarcely diminished over the years.

Open Fire (1994)

Open Fire

On January 14, 1983, film editor Stephen Waldorf was shot and severely injured by police officers after he was mistaken for wanted criminal Dave Martin. The sociological circumstances underpinning this freak accident are certainly manifold and complex, but Paul Greengrass took up the challenge of exploring them in this supremely confident second film. The obvious guilty party in this scenario is the police officer who pulled the trigger, but Open Fire also considers the possibility that a widespread fear of Martin made this officer more predisposed to shoot. Not stopping there, the film turns its scrutiny once more in the other direction to examine whether the source of this fear was entirely justified. Did the officer find Martin scary because the criminal had earlier shot another cop on a whim? Or was he terrified mainly because Martin was different — a transvestite with a flamboyant personality to boot?

The dense interplay of social forces prevents sides from being easily taken in this situation, and Open Fire is fittingly ambivalent in its treatment of characters. Most fascinating is the characterization of Martin, who is played by a show-stealing Rupert Graves. Inhabiting a Clyde Barrow-esque role in the way he outruns the law in style, Martin is instantly charismatic as an anti-hero, and the film makes it a point to have us sympathize with his bitterness at being labeled a social outcast. On the other hand, his pathological love of violence alienates us, placing us in the shoes of the edgy cops in pursuit. However, when law-abiding characters start judging him on the basis of his drag and we hear echoes of the venomous prejudice that first drove Martin to the social fringe, our sympathies sway back toward him once more. It is primarily through generating this oscillation in viewer identification that Open Fire crafts a psychologically rich tale of cops, criminals, and the broken society they both inhabit.

The One That Got Away (1996)

The One That Got Away

“The true hero of the Bravo Two Zero mission tells his own story,” proclaims the subtitle on the cover of Chris Ryan’s novel The One That Got Away, the source material for Greengrass’ film. Given that the book was written by this “hero” himself, it seemed plausible that the source and its adaptation would grossly glorify its author’s military exploits à la the subtitle. And yet, while I have never read the book, the film entirely subverted expectations by distancing itself from Ryan’s perspective, diminishing his narrative importance to that of his fellow soldiers. In autobiographies, the first-person narration tends to grant elevated authority and value to the narrator’s perspective because they are telling the story. Greengrass’ The One That Got Away mitigates this tendency by taking advantage of cinema’s typically third-person relationship with its subjects. It gives equal weight to the lives of all major characters involved, doing so through democratically distributing screen time among all the soldiers and allowing Ryan to occasionally come across as less-than-heroic. When Ryan gets away at the end, we are equally aware of the other soldiers who didn’t make it out.

The film’s relatively even-handed assignation of narrative agency to its characters emphasizes their collective identity as a military unit and, subsequently, their collective abandonment by the British government. Bravo Two Zero was the call sign for an eight-man British Army Special Air Service patrol that was left on its own after a botched scouting mission in Iraq. The One That Got Away explicitly implicates the government in multiple scenes, and while the accuracy of these depictions is up for debate, the fact remains that people died because no backup was sent. As the film chronicles the soldiers’ fight for survival, it evolves into an efficient thriller, but also a polemic filled with anger and haunted by the lives that were lost.

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