Tag Archives: Greengrass

Paul Greengrass #2: Captain Phillips

As I wrote in the last post, Paul Greengrass has developed a style which is composed of two distinct approaches to film; Hollywood thrills combined with politically-motivated realism. In Bloody Sunday we see his politics and realism dominate; in his two Bourne films, we see him tend much more towards mainstream thriller. He does both of these things exceptionally well, and bringing them together, as he does in Captain Phillips, results in a gripping thriller which is infused with, but not slowed down by, the real weight of political and social comment.

As with Bloody Sunday, the film is based on real events. In 2009, the US ship Maersk Alabama was hijacked by 4 Somali pirates, led by 18 year old Abduwali Muse. The Captain, Richard Phillips, was taken aboard a lifeboat and held hostage for five days until he was freed by a Navy Seal team. This film is based in part on the book written by Phillips. This is typical Greengrass territory; a real story of conflict and danger serving as a microcosm of much wider political tensions, exploited for opportunity to both thrill and educate an audience.

Film Fall Preview

Primarily, though, Captain Phillips is a thriller. The tension gets cranked up so much that it’s actually hard to keep watching at times. Tension, of course, is created by many things and Greengrass’ characteristic “shakycam”, combined with sensitive and responsive editing by Chris Rouse, serve to effectively recreate both the chaos of the actual hijacking and the almost unbearable claustrophobia aboard the lifeboat once Phillips is taken hostage. Aesthetically, it’s business as usual for Greengrass and, as usual, all the kinetic camerawork and jumpy editing strives to put us in the middle of the action. It works, I think; although it is much complained about, I’ve never had a problem with Greengrass’ cinematography since it suits his subject matter and overall style of edgy, nervy realism. If you’re in the anti-shake camp, though, there’s a facebook page you can join to vent.

Conventional wisdom tells us that mainstream film should be edited ‘invisibly’, that audiences should not even be aware of camera and editing, focusing instead on the performances. Although we’re definitely not in ‘invisible editing’ territory here,  the performances are easily strong enough to distract those who need distracting, for they are astonishingly good. Tom Hanks, an actor who I think struggles to escape his own persona – decent, warm, humorous – plays (very) slightly against type as the slightly officious, bossy Phillips. He nags his crew, frets about his son and comes across very naturally as an unremarkable father figure. By the end, however, we have come to be astonished at the resilience and courage of this very normal man, and the last ten minutes of the movie might well count as the absolute pinnacle of Hanks’ career.

Even stronger, however, is the performance by first-timer Barkhad Abdi. Playing Muse, the leader of the hijackers, he manages to convey youthful bravado and invulnerability with a mature understanding that he is trapped in a struggle between much bigger forces. We come to like him, indeed, and feel for him at the end; as with Hanks, there is a real star quality and charisma in Abdi which leaves the audience open to understanding the motivations for his character’s actions.

Muse

The relationship between these two forms the basis for the narrative. At the start, we are in fairly simple good/ bad binary opposition territory (although the ‘bad guy’ role is filled more by Muse’s very volatile sidekick, Bilal, played with ever-increasing intensity by Barkhad Abdirahman.) It would be very unlike Greengrass to leave this relationship uncomplicated, though, and there is always a sense that these two men, Muse and Phillips, are alike in some ways. Edwin Davies sees the film as ‘an examination of a clash between two captains, Philips and Muse… that is firmly grounded – or, perhaps more appropriately, anchored – in their shared humanity.’ As blogger SBT points out, both men are mere middle managers in larger organisations, working for and frustrated by bosses’ expectations; later, we see the commanders of warships in similar roles, eager to interpret and execute – literally – orders from their own bosses. What we see played out on screen is the human cost of interactions between vast national interests and tensions; but it’s done so well that it works basically as a struggle between two men, both trying to do their jobs as well as possible.

Greengrass doesn’t make too much of the socio-political context (although, bafflingly, Stephanie Zacharek writes that ‘there’s something about Captain Phillips that’s exhausting, and it may have to do with Greengrass’s insistence on trying to explain why unhappy Somalis would want to clamber aboard an American ship and start firing automatic weapons willy-nilly’; although ‘exhausting’ is exactly the term to describe Greengrass’ work, it’s hard to see where or how he has overdone the contextual material.) At the start, we see Phillips’ concern about his son’s job prospects juxtaposed with Somali villagers clamouring to be allowed to be part of the pirate crew. Later, he suggests to Muse that there must be employment open to him other than fishing or piracy. ‘Maybe in America, Irish,’ retorts Muse. There is almost a father-son relationship between the two, though the film never becomes quite that cheesy; but Hanks nags the hijackers about their doomed enterprise, teaches them how to operate the lifeboat, even gives Muse some advice on how a Captain should act. All of this, of course, gives the film an emotional richness and punch which most thrillers lack.

Overall, a superb film which works, as ever with Greengrass, on the head and the heart.

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Paul Greengrass #1: Bloody Sunday

We’ve got to teach these people a lesson…

Paul Greengrass gained global fame for his direction of two of the original Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon. Those films showed how sure a hand he has when it comes to creating and managing tension and thrills. More recently, he directed Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, just as exciting but with a more obvious political theme, largely because it is based on true events (review to follow.) That film – based on reality and overtly political – seems to be a fairly obvious return to his roots; Greengrass was well-known as an investigative journalist and television producer before he was a film director. Most famous was  his co-authoring of the book Spycatcher, which revealed secrets about Britain’s spy services and was the subject of an unsuccessful banning attempt by the government.

So, clearly he’s serious about the political content of his work, and perhaps his finest film, though not his best known, is Bloody Sunday. Made in almost-documentary style, it recreates the events of 30 January 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland when British soldiers fired on unarmed Civil Rights marchers, killing 13 of them. Bloody Sunday, as the massacre came to be known, has since been the subject of enormous controversy and two government enquiries. (The first found the British Army blameless; the second, thirty years later, found the exact opposite.) Combining violence, oppression, politics and authentic controversy, it is hard to imagine subject matter more suited to Greengrass’ style.

Typically of Greengrass, the film is presented in a sort-of cinema verite style. (This is very typical of him. Even his Bourne thrillers, as The Guardian points out, were made in this style.) More generally, we can see the influence of the Italian Neorealists. First, many of those appearing in the film are not actors; many of the soldiers are played by actual ex-paratroopers, for example, and one of the victims of the massacre is played by the nephew of a real-life victim. Don Nesbitt, author of the book on which the film is based, appears as a priest. So, we’re watching people with direct connection to and involvement in the events documented in the film. With the soldiers in particular, this adds hugely to the verisimilitude and realism; they sound and look and behave like soldiers, not like actors. When they talk, it sounds ad-libbed and believable; they interrupt and talk over each other just as people do in real life. As Edward Guthmann writes, ‘Nothing looks rehearsed, and each of the dozens of actors seems to respond to the action while it unfolds.’

The camera is handheld (this might actually be the fundament of Greengrass’ aesthetic) and, particularly in the shooting scenes, this is supposed to put the viewer right in the middle of the action (although arguably, it’s such an overused technique now that it no longer has that effect.) Real sets, ambient lighting and so on are used, and editing is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the neorealist ethos; the diegesis in this film looks and feels very much like the real world. The idea is to create a sense that what we are watching is real; the filmmaker has removed himself as far as possible from the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter. It works; this is one of those films which leaves the viewer exhausted and outraged at the end.

hospital soldiers

However, Greengrass is not making a documentary; this is a narrative film and as such the narrative is artificially imposed onto events. We follow one character, basically, the organiser of the march, played by James Nesbitt. We are focused on the march itself and how much he has invested in it, but we also see him with his parents, his troubled relationship with his girlfriend and so on, and the audience can hardly help but empathise with him. The fact that he is played by James Nesbitt, one of the most automatically likeable actors working today, already starts sugest where Greengrass’ sympathies lie. We are being manipulated throughout the film. At the start, for example, we see the crosscutting between the (chaotic, civilian) preparations for the march and the (efficient, military) organisation for the army response. Crosscutting continues throughout, always constructing the binary opposition between the ruthlessness of the army with the well-meaning naiveté of the marchers. Cinematography contributes to this; before the march for example, we see one shot wherein Nesbitt’s character is trapped in the mid ground between the British paratroopers in the foreground and the Nationalist paramilitaries, the IRA, in the background. The shot, and the whole scene, not only shows how trapped our main character is, but seems to suggest that these two groups – the British army and a terrorist organisation – are alike in terms of their intractability and cynicism. Greengrass, clearly, is not one to shy away from controversy.

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Representations in this film are most definitely not those we would expect from mainstream cinema. Soldiers – those on ‘our’ side at least – are dominantly represented as heroic and generally predisposed to do the ‘right’ thing. Here, we see absolute cynicism in the military. The army sets out not to control the march but to provoke trouble and arrest as many people as possible. Commanding officers are shown to be removed from the actual trouble, secure in their knowledge that nothing they do will be questioned or challenged. It is significant that the accents of the commanders are most definitely upper-class; the soldiers, like those they are shooting at, are working-class. This is not particularly developed, but there is certainly an idea about class warfare and solidarity being expressed. Perhaps the most shocking representation of the army comes at the end when those soldiers who have just killed 13 civilians are called before their superiors to account for their actions. Greengrass frames them in almost full-frontal close up, having them talk, and lie, directly to the camera. Juxtaposed with the shocking, chaotic violence we have just seen, the calmness of this scene and the blatant dishonesty of their testimony is shocking and sickening. Lighting is subtly chiaroscuro to connote the wickedness of what is being done.

direct address lying

The representations of the army finalise in the scenes where they are shown to chase, then murder, fleeing citizens. The shots of uniformed British soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in the back, situated in ordinary working-class housing estates,  are designed to be shocking and brutal. The always-present emphasis on the reality of these events makes it massively more powerful and effective.

murder

Although made in a cinema-verite style, then, it soon becomes clear that Greengrass is very much pushing an agenda, that he is not wholly objective about these events. There is subtle artistry at work here; note, for example, that the palette is appropriately desaturated throughout the film until after the massacre when we start to see shocking, garish splashes of blood. Greengrass is appropriating the realist style in order to give weight and credibility to his own take on historical events.

blood

The film is extremely powerful, largely because of the weight of realism that it brings to bear. It utilises the two aspects of Greengrass’ style – thrills and reality, excitement and intelligence – to superb effect and it is, I think, his finest work to date.