For Paul Greengrass, a Connecting Flight

The writer and director hopes his movie
The writer and director hopes his movie "United 93" challenges viewers to look beyond 9/11. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006

Barely four years ago, Paul Greengrass was some British guy making socially conscious movies about the Irish troubles. Now he's the one -- not a Spielberg, a Cameron or a Scorsese -- who directed the first major movie to deal directly with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And "United 93" is his vision of what happened on the ill-fated flight before it ended tragically in a desolate field near Shanksville, Pa. Did the A-listers want no part of this? (Oliver Stone, no big surprise, has his own Sept. 11 film due out in August.) And how did an Englishman get charged with retelling one of the darkest days in American history?

The man to answer all that, writer-director Greengrass, has arrived, sauntering into a Washington hotel suite. No leggy aides chirruping into cellphones. No alpha-agent guard-dogging his every word. Just a burly 50-year-old Englishman, John Lennon glasses and Jesus hair.

We're immediately struck by a weird, inappropriate thought, but here it is: This guy would have been useful up there, huddling with passenger and rugby player Mark Bingham, squaring shoulders to bust open that cockpit door. But as soon as Greengrass begins to speak, all thoughts of the physical disappear. Now it's all about the voice, softer and more reassuring than a priest's at a funeral -- those sonorous tones, that confidence. As if nothing could have been easier than making a movie about one of the country's most traumatic episodes.

"I've seen a lot of political violence in my life," says Greengrass, who spent the first 10 years of his career as a producer-reporter for "World in Action," a British investigative TV series that took him to hot spots around the world, including Lebanon, the Philippines and Northern Ireland.

"I know what it looks like, I know what it smells like, I know what motivates young men to do it. I've talked to them about it. I know what victims feel like, you know? I know the abominable effect it has on politics. I know how intractable it is.

"Does it mean I know about 9/11? No. But that's what brought me to the table," says Greengrass, who conceived of the movie project himself rather than signing on to something already in the works.

He loves America, he says, his blunt workman's fingers making gentle arcs in front of him, sometimes fingering that tousled hair. Feels very connected to it. Lives in Hollywood. Lives well, thanks to the success of "The Bourne Supremacy," which reaped $176 million for Universal. (Getting "United 93" made at Universal amounts to studio payback, Greengrass cashing in his chips.) But as to his suitability for this undertaking, he says, it boils down to the experience of two films. The first was "Bloody Sunday," a 2002 release about the killings of Irish demonstrators at the hands of British forces in 1972. The other, 2004's "Omagh," examined the aftermath of an IRA bombing that claimed 29 victims in Northern Ireland.

Both were filmed with the hand-held-camera urgency of documentaries, the signature style of this former TV journalist. No one stands out as hero or villain. Everyone is caught up in the no-exit impasse of personal politics. Families lose sons, husbands and children, sometimes wives. His films are about the disintegration of peace and happiness across entire communities. And for both productions, Greengrass reached out and secured the support of the actual families who had lost loved ones; those who felt a moral ownership of the story.

He took the same approach for "United 93," he says. He visited with the families of the slain passengers and crew. He told them he had culled the findings of the 9/11 Commission report and other sources, would listen to their personal testimonies as well as those of military and civilian personnel who monitored that awful day. He promised them he would honor and dignify their dead. And that, as with his Irish films, he'd find a softer, gentler truth.

"You can make films about these events that are not these bleak and tragic events," Greengrass says. Although he stresses the "United 93" project was "a different film about a different subject, the principle is the same. . . . Let's try and create a shared narrative of it, which doesn't duck the truth of what happened, but which doesn't seek to judge and condemn or caricature or marginalize. Let's try and draw together, see if we can't paint a picture of this event that we'll all look at afterward and go, 'It must have been something a bit like that.' "

He got the families' collective blessing, he says.

All 40? Surely, there were some holdouts?

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company