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Paul Greengrass Continues to Confront the Big Issues

The ‘United 93’ director is making another movie about terrorism.
By  · Published on August 23rd, 2017

The ‘United 93’ director is making another movie about terrorism.

This week, Deadline broke the news that Netflix acquired the rights to Paul Greengrass‘s next movie. The unnamed project will chronicle the true story of Anders Behring Breivik (now known as Fjotolf Hansen), the Norwegian far-right extremist responsible for the slaughter of 77 people in 2011. The perpetrator identified himself as a fascist with ethno-nationalistic beliefs and a hatred for Muslims. His reign of terror started with a bombing outside a government building in Oslo and culminated in a youth camp massacre. The death toll remains the highest in the nation’s history since World War II. Don’t expect this movie to be cheerful.

Although his most renowned and popular works are his contributions to the Bourne series, Greengrass is no stranger to making movies based on true stories. In fact, he cut his teeth as a filmmaker making documentaries and political television dramas. His subsequent work has rarely ventured too far from reality, though. Bloody Sunday, for example, dramatizes the Irish civil rights march from 1972 that led to protesters being massacred by British soldiers. United 93, meanwhile, tackles 9/11 by recreating the terror of Flight 93. He also directed Captain Phillips, the Tom Hanks vehicle about the 2009 hijacking of the US container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. Even Green Zone, a conventional action-thriller set against the backdrop of the Iraq invasion, is politically conscious. 

Therefore, a movie based on Breivik is very much in the director’s wheelhouse. Disturbing audiences to their core is a habit he’s accustomed to. But he does have a proven track record of handling this type of delicate subject matter with care and historical accuracy. United 93 was developed from the 9/11 Commission’s final report and communication with the victim’s families. To add to the realism, he cast unknown actors based in New York at the time. In Captain Phillips, he added some star power (Tom Hanks) to proceedings, but a substantial portion of the cast were all first-time actors. For his next outing, he’s expected to continue this approach by shooting on location in Norway and working with local talent. 

As undeniably grim as this movie will be, it’s a topical time to announce a project like this. Issues pertaining to race, nationalism, and political violence have been unavoidable of late. And not just in Europe. The the alt-right/white supremacist riot in Charlottesville and the reported spike in hate crimes against Muslims this year are prime examples of that. Breivik’s crimes took place in Europe six years ago, but the extremist ideology he represents transcends borders. 

Unlike horror movies, which give viewers a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent acts taking place on screen, the nature of movies based on real terror forces us to confront heartbreaking tragedy almost head-on. Especially when portrayed through the lens of a director like Greengrass, who refuses to mythologize real-life events. He won’t focus on human interest and he probably won’t judge the evil that is Breivik. If previous movies are anything to go by, he’ll simply show what happened on that horrible day in the truest, ugliest light possible. But do we need to be reminded of how chaotic reality is in our entertainment right now? 

We already got a movie about right-wing terrorism last year with the Daniel Radcliffe-led Imperium. Meanwhile, this year’s Nocturama forces the viewer to follow a group of radicalized teenagers in Paris and experience events from their perspective. Like Greengrass, the director of the latter, Bertrand Bonello, doesn’t take an ideological stance. He does, however, encourage us to try and understand the wrongdoers. It is unlikely that Greengrass will try to sympathetically humanize Breivik.

That said, when handled effectively, this type of cinema can be cathartic and thought-provoking. But those who enter Greengrass’s next dramatic re-enactment will do so knowing doom is the only outcome. The cinematic equivalent of watching a lamb being led to the slaughter.  Whether you’re up to such an experience depends entirely on you. 

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.