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By this time, he’d made some 40-odd feature films, television movies and miniseries — interspersing such forgettable work as Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold in 1978 and Xanadu in 1980 with 21 Hours in Munich, a 1976 drama about the terrorist murders of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes; The Burning Bed, a 1984 wake-up call about battered wives; and Steal This Movie, a 2000 biopic about Abbie Hoffman. During this period, he won every major professional award except an Oscar.
Greenwald had never done a documentary when he took on Unprecedented. But “doing it gave me enormous satisfaction knowing it was something I really believed,” he explains. “Because democracy is not a spectator sport; it’s a participatory sport. People in a democracy should be involved.”
Meanwhile, he’d worked and made pals with Hollywood’s most out-there celebrity activists, like Martin Sheen (whom Greenwald directed in three films) and Mike Farrell (whom Greenwald eventually produced in the 2003 CBS movie The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron). When the invasion of Iraq was being debated, Greenwald didn’t just voice his opposition in the safety of Arianna Huffington’s living room salon. Instead, in December 2002, he joined with Farrell to start the Hollywood anti-war group Artists United To Win Without War.
At first, only 10 celebrities signed the call for peace. Soon, though, Artists United’s membership expanded to dozens of celebrities, including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Ethan Hawke, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst. Its opponents argued that all this star wattage seemed childish, even churlish. But they took notice when the actors’ fortunes paid for newspaper ads and TV spots, and their fame attracted invitations to speak at anti-war rallies and on cable news. Led by Greenwald and Farrell, Artists United fought back against right-wing attempts to have its members blacklisted by Big Media and its advertisers.
Greenwald also joined with activist/music industry exec Danny Goldberg to launch a politically progressive publishing company, RDV Books. Among other projects, they co-edited It’s a Free Country, an anthology on civil liberties post-9/11.
Given the serious drought besetting what was once his lucrative bread-and-butter work — made-for-TV movies that paid at least $200,000 producing fees — Greenwald may have inevitably expanded into another line of work.
“It’s hard to get any TV movie made now. If it’s perceived as serious, it’s even harder,” he says. “But if we’re making a film that’s political in a system that’s based on profit, we can’t complain, ‘Oh, poor me.’ Our job as creators of this material is to present to the powers-that-be how it can be successful in terms of profitability.” Even so, he says his documentaries, which cost on average $250,000 apiece to make even though almost everyone above and below the line volunteers, wind up costing him money.
Unprecedented was financed in part with pittances from MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress and other liberal groups, and the upcoming Unconstitutional received ACLU help. For Uncovered, Greenwald had to take out a personal loan to cover extra costs until enough DVDs were sold so he could pay it back. In June, more sales meant Greenwald could send 1,000 copies free to those military families who’ve bravely spoken out against the Iraqi war, and provide 10,000 gratis for DJ Phatmike to hand out during punk band NOFX’s tour. “Whenever there’s a little bit of money, we use it to expand who sees the film,” Greenwald says, explaining his guerrilla-style distribution system.
Still, the question must be asked, especially since his Uncovered is soon headed for movie multiplexes where Fahrenheit 9/11 may still be playing: Does Greenwald feel competitive with Moore? “Maybe there’s a part of my unconscious that is,” he admits. “But consciously, I am thrilled for him. I think Michael is the real deal: committed, provocative, smart. And Fahrenheit 9/11 is a great film. We both want to tell these stories that the primary media is not telling. There’s certainly room for everybody.”
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