Why the ‘Bourne’ Director Can’t Stop Thinking About Terrorism
From ‘United 93’ to ‘Captain Phillips’ to his new Netflix film ’22 July,’ Paul Greengrass has attempted to reconsider the way he views 9/11—and everything that’s followed
In the 21st century, terrorism is an inescapable reality. Vigilance, too, is futile. No matter the precautions we take, we simply cannot stop all those who want to inflict harm upon us. And so, all we can really do in the end is adjust our expectations accordingly and hold onto our sense of who we are as a society.
Yet that sort of passive, measured response flies in the face of how people normally react — someone hits us, we want to hit back even harder. We want revenge. And if we can’t get it in real life, at least we can at the movies. Since 9/11, numerous films and TV series (from 24 to Zero Dark Thirty) have wrestled with the legacy of those attacks and served as a way of processing the feeling of helplessness that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda instilled in Americans. Only one filmmaker, though, has consistently returned to the theme of modern-day terrorism, his attitude maturing and growing more nuanced with each new movie, which, in turn, has helped show the rest of us how our thinking needs to evolve, too.
Some might complain that Paul Greengrass is repeating himself with his latest film, the Netflix drama 22 July. It’s about the 2011 Norway attacks that killed 77 people, and harkens back to United 93 and Captain Phillips, his previous true-life terrorism dramas. But it would be more accurate to describe these three films as a thoughtful progression as Greengrass comes to understand what’s required in this new reality. Where other movies might fetishize tragedy or glamorize retribution, 22 July is a sober accounting of how Norway reclaimed its soul after a massacre. As the final film in a loosely connected trilogy, it also demonstrates how we can move on from 9/11 — a national scar that still haunts us.
Of course, Greengrass is best known for his Jason Bourne films — 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum and 2016’s Jason Bourne — which mix blockbuster action with worried commentary about America’s growing surveillance state. In those movies — and, to a lesser extent, 2010’s underwhelming Iraq thriller Green Zone — the English director confronts post-9/11 life in a mainstream, popcorn way. United 93, Captain Phillips and 22 July, however, draw on his docudrama roots — specifically, his low-budget 2002 drama Bloody Sunday, which chronicled the 1972 shooting of Irish protestors by the British military — to depict real stories about violence’s cruel consequences. In this trilogy, Greengrass, perhaps unconsciously, mirrors Americans’ own complicated feelings about terrorism, landing in a place where open-minded viewers may find their assumptions challenged and their worldview broadened.
Never once, though, does it feel like Greengrass is lecturing us: I suspect he’s going through this same spiritual evolution in real time alongside the rest of us.
When Greengrass set about to make 2006’s United 93, there had been no major films released about the 9/11 attacks, although horror movies such as Cloverfield and War of the Worlds evoked images from that terrible day. (Oliver Stone’s more overt World Trade Center came out four months after Greengrass’ movie.) Written by Greengrass, United 93 pays tribute to the brave passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the one hijacked plane that failed to complete its deadly mission. Incorporating the same jittery-camera-and-jagged-editing techniques he’d wielded so successfully in The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass succeeded in draining the proceedings of any adrenaline-soaked excitement, instead offering a chilly, absorbing procedural of how the terrorists gained control of the plane and how FAA officials dealt with the emergency as it unfolded.
When United 93 came out, some questioned why anyone would want to be reminded about such a terrible day in the country’s history. “I’ve made a few films over the years about terrorism and political violence,” Greengrass explained at the time, “and after the 9/11 Commission finished their report, and the families of the survivors unanimously said they wanted this film to happen, it felt like it was time to tell this story,” later adding, “This is not a Bruckheimer movie.”
To add authenticity and gravitas, Greengrass hired several real-life people, including air-traffic controllers and other officials, to play themselves — even individuals who were working on 9/11. As a result, United 93 was a grueling, harrowing experience, capturing the horror and resourcefulness of a handful of people working together to keep the terrorists from doing any more damage.
And yet, as sober and compelling as United 93 was, the film couldn’t help but feel a bit reactionary: Look what those people did to us. Five years after 9/11, we probably still weren’t entirely ready to process what had happened, and Greengrass’ stripped-down style was probably the best option among several far-less-appealing ones. But in that same interview, Greengrass seemed to understand the inherently limited perspective his film provided: “Wherever you sit politically, we are all in that same stage of being wounded and trying to figure what to do next,” he said. “Those people on United 93 had the courage to confront what we’re all dealing with. The question is, do we?”
Seven years later with Captain Phillips, Greengrass made room not just for the victims, but for the aggressors, too. The film recounted the traumatic 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, who took the ship’s captain, an American named Richard Phillips, hostage. But unlike United 93, which didn’t concern itself with dramatizing its terrorist characters, Captain Phillips spent much of its early stretches showing us the pirates’ circumstances as they lived in poverty and resorted to crime to survive.
And although Phillips was played by the beloved Tom Hanks, the movie revolved around Abduwali Muse, the Somali leader, played by then-newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who was born in Somalia and moved to America as a teenager. Captain Phillips had the same steely procedural tone as United 93, but there was also an element of curiosity and sympathy regarding Muse and his men. Yes, they might be threatening the lives of Phillips and his crew, but the film recognized the clash of cultures going on — as well as the almost obscene disparity between Phillips’ life in the U.S. and Muse’s in Somalia. Within the context of a thriller, Greengrass asked audiences to examine the reasons why some terrorism occurs — what economic, social and political factors come into play.
“I wanted this film to look at a broader conflict in our world — the conflict between the haves and the have-nots,” Greengrass said in the film’s production notes. “The confrontation between Phillips, who is part of the stream of the global economy, and the pirates, who are not, felt fresh and new and forward-looking to me.” Captain Phillips didn’t condone the pirates’ actions, but it gave us a new perspective on movies about terrorist attacks. If those at the top of the food chain don’t recognize what drives those at the bottom to do desperate things, the film argued, we’ll never solve these international conflicts — or frankly, the conflicts within our own borders.
This sober truth is at the heart of 22 July, which relates how one white man, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), successfully carried out two terrorist strikes on the same day — the first in downtown Oslo with a car bomb, and the second at a nearby summer camp where he gunned down teachers and students with cold-blooded efficiency.
If 22 July had been United 93, Greengrass might have focused on the attacks and the process by which Breivik was apprehended, memorializing the carnage but also offering some sort of resolution. Greengrass doesn’t do that. Instead, the attacks, although depicted in terrifying detail, only makes up the first half-hour — the next two hours are given over to what happens next as families grieve for their murdered children and a reluctant attorney (Jon Øigarden) takes up Breivik’s defense in court.
That might make 22 July seem less electric than Greengrass’ previous films in this so-called trilogy. But rather than being a slow courtroom drama, the movie grapples with the by-now familiar aftershocks of a terrorist attack. The setting may be Norway, but nothing that happens in 22 July will seem out of place to American viewers: Characters scream for violent retribution; the foundations of law and order are threatened in the name of “justice”; survivors try to pick up the pieces; and an angry, racist, anti-immigration zealot seeks to tear apart the fabric of a society with his toxic views.
If Greengrass sacrifices some of the high-stakes tension of his earlier films, it’s almost intentional, making the point in 22 July that the hard work of preserving democracy won’t be conducted in the explosive style of a 24 (or even a Jason Bourne film). It will take smart, clearheaded individuals remembering that (to pull out a well-worn GWOT cliché) we let the terrorists win if we give in to their extremism. 22 July is about the rigmarole of judicial procedure — testimony, hearings, due process, the rule of law — because, ultimately, that’s what makes for a free society. Democracy requires not succumbing to anger — it requires holding onto reason.
In a sense, Greengrass is revising the lessons learned from United 93 and Captain Phillips in this absorbing, thought-provoking film, which he talked about in a Film Comment interview this week:
93 was essentially about the eyes being opened to Islamist terror, and when I started this, I felt very much that we needed to wake up to the counter force — this extreme right-wing terror threat which is rising unbelievably fast. They’re feeding off each other, and both are a response to globalization. [22 July] was very much a response to United 93 film-wise, 11 or 12 years on. It’s a different world where it’s a different narrative — I wanted the attacks to only be a small part of it. I wanted it to be very restrained. But ultimately I wanted the film to be about the fight for democracy, how Norway fought for her democracy. How those characters fought for her democracy and in particular how those young people who survived could keep their ideals intact and get through it. All that happened in Norway in 2011 was a story for today and tomorrow across the West.
Norway’s problem is America’s problem, which is everyone’s problem. We live in a new age where old hatreds and familiar evils have become far more lethal, ubiquitous and frightening. The progression in Greengrass’ three films seems vital for all of us to absorb; they show us how to move beyond shock and anger toward understanding and a reaffirmation of what matters to us as a society. And while 22 July offers no definitive answers, it’s because in the ongoing war on terror, it’s up to us to decide on the ideal ending.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He last wrote about how it’s glorious to watch Tom Hardy go full “serious actor” in the awful Venom.