Paul Greengrass: Action man

From World in Action to Spycatcher, the maker of the new 9/ll film has never fought shy of strife
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To say that Paul Greengrass is unafraid of controversy is a bit like saying that Michael Winner hates making a fool of himself. As the co-author of Spycatcher, the director of Bloody Sunday and now the first Hollywood film to deal with the 11 September hijackings, United 93, Greengrass habitually finds himself stirring things up.

United 93 was selected as the opening film for this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Not surprisingly, the film generated press and public debate in New York before it was shown. The trailers in Manhattan cinemas caused distress to many, especially those who had lost family members and loved ones in the tragedy, and many cinema managers bowed to pressure to withdraw them.

Although it was made with the express co-operation of the relatives of those who died in the plane itself - the plane in the concerted terrorist attack that was prevented from crashing into the Capitol building by the actions of the passengers - it has deeply divided New Yorkers, some of whom believe it is too soon to dramatise the events.

But, as actor Robert De Niro said before the premiere: "If United 93 was not opening the festival, it would have seemed strange. You can't not be touched by the film. It's direct, it's simple. It's kind of a playback of what happened, and you know what's going to happen."

It is a fast-paced reconstruction of the events from the boarding of the plane to the moment it crashed in Pennsylvania. Many of those involved on the ground, including air traffic controllers and airline executives, play themselves to heighten the sense of reality. It is as close to a documentary reconstruction as is possible.

This comes as no surprise as Greengrass cut his teeth as a researcher and journalist filmmaker for the Granada Television's tough documentary series, World in Action, where he learnt the virtues of dramatic storytelling without embellishment to convey the facts in an impartial, yet exciting manner.

It was these qualities that were honed further in a series of fact-based television dramas that included The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Bloody Sunday and Omagh - magisterial reconstructions that showed the filmmaker's rapidly evolving style and commitment.

"You just knew he had that extra something, that extra 5 per cent," says George Turner, World in Action's principal cameraman. "He had a talent for taking on unusual stories and doing them to the best of his ability."

Turner worked with Greengrass on his most famous episode, the Spycatcher story - in which former MI5 operative Peter Wright blew the whistle on the inner workings of the organisation through an extensive interview. Greengrass was the researcher for the programme and later went on to write the book with Wright which was so controversial it was banned in the UK by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government.

Almost as much fuss attended his film Bloody Sunday, in part because he cast actual British soldiers and took his cue from their improvisation and reaction to the reconstructed situation. Of all the directors to have emerged from the training ground of Granada Television, Greengrass is the one who most closely embodies the notion of filmmaker as warrior.

Born in 1955 and brought up in Gravesend, Kent, he began his film-making career with a Super 8 camera he found in his school art department at school. Many of his early short films were animated, surrealist horror movies that utilised old dolls and artists' dummies. After Cambridge University he joined World in Action in the early 1980s. According to Turner, Greengrass was"very much a team player. He'd be just as willing to carry the tripod as provide the research."

Associated with a number of terrific documentaries with World in Action - the sexier second cousin to Panorama - including the dirty protests in the H-Blocks in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War and, of course, Spycatcher, Greengrass was steadily accumulating knowledge and experience that would stand him in good stead for when he made the leap into films.

In 1989, he made his first feature, Resurrected, based on the true story of a soldier who went missing in the Falklands War. It won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. He followed this with the underwhelming Theory of Flight about which he later remarked: "There are learning films and achieving films and this was a learning film."

More drama documentaries followed: Open Fire, a scandal about a policeman accused of murder, and The One That Got Away, about a military operation in the Gulf War. But it was Bloody Sunday in 2002 that put him on the map. It won first prize at the Berlin Film Festival for its urgent and authentic portrayal of the events in Northern Ireland that owed a stylistic debt to the Italian Neo-Realists like Rossellini, Rosi and Pontecorvo whose seminal film, The Battle of Algiers, provided clear inspiration.

"The thing about Paul is that he is a man of big ambitions as opposed to personal ambitions," says veteran television producer John Ware, who produced World in Action, and currently Panorama, and has known him for 27 years. "He's got big ideas and has always pursued big ideas. He has high intelligence and is a good historian. He remains as intuitive and informed about current affairs as he was when he worked on World in Action. He has an extremely original and confident grasp of current events. He is also adventurous and terrific fun to be with."

It is this journalistic dynamic that he brings to his Hollywood movies like The Bourne Supremacy with Matt Damon. It raised the bar on espionage action thrillers by virtue of its style and substance.

Often mistaken for a bleeding-heart liberal, Greengrass is too much of an iconoclast to fall into the pit of partisanship. "He is not a man riven with a liberal conscience," says Ware. "He is completely fearless and couldn't give a shit about lobbies."

Indeed, while the long, dishevelled hair, the bulky energy and the small round glasses may give the impression of a Marxist ideologue turned cool liberal filmmaker, any conversation with him immediately blows that notion out of the water. He's a kind of intelligent, loquacious action hero of his own making, which is why the Americans have embraced him for his commitment to United 93 as well as offering him all manner of grand projects like the long gestating Watchmen movie, a science fiction blockbuster with a strong political subtext.

His ability to shifty from real-life tragedy to total fantasy will undoubtedly pay dividends as long as he remains true to his journalistic roots. Clearly this is the case with United 93, as the New Yorker magazine's David Denby put it: "Many films whip up tension with cunning and manipulation. This movie plays it straight. A few people made extraordinary use of those tormented minutes, and United 93 fully honours what was original and spontaneous and braver in their refusal to go quietly."

"Original", "spontaneous" and a "refusal to go quietly" might just as easily be applied to Greengrass himself.