By Hillel Aron
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He’s as creatively talented as Michael Moore and even more of a political activist, but to this point practically unknown by comparison. Now, though, his documentaries are about to become just as controversial as Moore’s. He’s Robert Greenwald, the Hollywood movie and television director/producer/provocateur. Unlike Moore, Greenwald stays behind the camera, but suddenly this week his name is everywhere because of the ambush-style release of his latest documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.
After premiering Tuesday in New York (it’s set to debut July 19 in L.A. with a live introduction by Howard Dean), the exposé has Dick Cheney’s favorite news network snarling at Greenwald, at The New York Times(which, on Sunday, published a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the video), and at its fictitious nemesis, the “biased liberal media.” Journalism and political Web sites, not to mention that trade bible, Editor & Publisher, are following the attacks and counter-attacks with undisguised glee. (Except for the Washington Post’s media reporter Howard Kurtz, who is not just leaning over backwards but actually tying himself into contortionist knots to take Fox News’ side, probably because Kurtz knows he could be accused of conflict of interest since he still has that shameful Reliable Sources gig with rival CNN.)
Yet, this is only the start of what will be a hat trick for Greenwald this year.
His 2003 video, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraqi War, is being expanded into a full-length documentary feature with added footage and global distribution for release in mid-August right before the Republican convention. (“I’ll personally offer free tickets to delegates who are bored of listening to canned speeches and happen to be poor,” taunts Greenwald.)
In September, Greenwald comes out with the third in his Un series of documentaries, Unconstitutional, which purports to look at how the Bush administration has cynically used the 9/11 tragedy to erode civil rights and quash dissent. Meanwhile, his first installment, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, is praised as a video primer on the precise mechanisms used by the Republicans to steal the White House.
“Doing these documentaries has just taken my faith in movie-making to a whole other level,” he tells L.A. Weekly, “because when you make a film that doesn’t put people to sleep, the response is extraordinary.”
All well and good, but the question remains: Why in the world would someone as successful in the entertainment industry as Greenwald jeopardize everything he’s worked so hard to build — his career, his reputation, his finances — to dabble in the dirt-poor field of documentary-making? And not just in can’t-lose, do-good documentaries on say, American Indians or Holocaust victims — but down-and-dirty, let’s-get-those-sons-a-bitches, provocative-on-purpose-and-to-the-max documentaries.
After all, this is no newcomer like Moore who, when he burst on the scene with the anti-corporate Roger & Me, had everything to gain and nothing to lose. By contrast, Greenwald easily could have — and still can — become blackballed by the Big Media networks and studios whose bottom lines depend upon toeing the lines drawn by the FCC and the FTC and the Bush administration. He’d already run afoul of Wal-Mart, the world’s single biggest seller of show-biz product, when the chain giant’s supplier refused to carry Uncovered. That is, until a big stink was made about Wal-Mart stocking videos of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. So the supplier buckled and bought 2,000 copies of Uncovered to sell online.
“By doing this, I’ve saved all this time in therapy,” jokes Greenwald, who’ll be 59 in August and is the father of four. He’s only half-joking.
Born and raised in Manhattan, educated at Antioch College and the New School for Social Research, Greenwald came from a family of psychologists: his father, his mother, even his brother and sister. “I was the only one who went to the other side,” he laughs. After setting up a career in New York theater, Greenwald moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago and transitioned into directing at the Mark Taper Forum. Though some of the plays had political messages, he was a long way from thinking of himself as a full-fledged activist.
“Yes, I had been working with prisoners in New York and out here, but I wasn’t particularly politically involved then. And, while I certainly cared, what I did wasn’t taking 80, 90 percent of my time,” Greenwald says. “Then two things kicked me into this next gear.”
First was the death of his father, who had been part of the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements and who had been following in the footsteps of hisfather, who’d been an organizer for the barbers’ union. “So, that got passed down. And I consciously wanted to take some of the best things my father gave me and build on them,” Greenwald explains. “One was a commitment to social justice. It wasn’t like orthodoxy or a specific political agenda. It was just an assumption that if you’re able to, you work for social justice for everyone, not just yourself.”
Then came 9/11. “Right after, I felt this enormous isolation. Because so many of my countrymen and women responded so quickly with rage and revenge, none of which I felt was going to make us safer. And I wanted, in whatever small way, to work against that ferocious militaristic response both emotionally and practically and create alternatives.”
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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