A longtime director and executive producer in features and television turned unabashedly left-leaning documentary filmmaker, Robert Greenwald made provocative, hard-hitting films to rival the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Unlike his counterparts, however, Greenwald eschewed in-your-face confrontations to focus on more straight-forward narratives and by using stock footage and subject interviews. Whether deriding the corporate practices of the nation's largest retail chain or using footage from a particular cable network to detail routine distortion of the news, Greenwald managed to stoke the fires of political debate by informing rather than entertaining. In accordance with his activist nature, Greenwald was not resigned to submitting his film to festivals in hopes of picking up distribution. He instead used MoveOn.org and other new media sources to distribute his movies directly to fans without using studios or theaters. Greenwald went even further, appealing directly to audiences to help fund his projects - a revolutionary and unheard of means of filmmaking that allowed him to make movies audiences truly wanted to see.
Born Aug. 28, 1945 in upper Manhattan, NY, Greenwald was raised in a family of psychologists - both his mother and father worked in the field, as did his brother and sister later in life. Though his father was involved in numerous social and political struggles of the time - namely the civil rights and anti-war movements - Greenwald wasn't actively engaged in politics. He attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH and the New School for Social Research back in Manhattan. He began a career directing theater in New York before moving out to Los Angeles, where he took up residence at the Mark Taper Forum. From there, he segued into television - first, as the producer on "The Desperate Miles" (ABC, 1975), a movie-of-the-week about a disabled Vietnam vet's 130-mile journey in a wheelchair, followed by "21 Hours at Munich" (ABC, 1976), a dramatization of the terrorist massacres at the 1972 Olympics. A couple of years later, he began directing such forgettable fair as "Sharon: Portrait of a Mistress" (NBC, 1977) and "Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold" (NBC, 1978), starring a young Kim Basinger as a naïve beauty queen seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood.
Greenwald then stepped into the feature world when he directed dance legend Gene Kelly in his final feature and Olivia Newton John in her first post-"Grease" should-have-been star vehicle, "Xanadu" (1980). Though a corny roller skating musical that suffered a drubbing at the box office and from critics at the time of its release, the disco-dated flick would go on to enjoy a "guilty-pleasure" cult following in later years. After licking his "Xanadu" wounds, Greenwald returned to television to produce "Miracle on Ice" (ABC, 1981), a docudrama about the emotional victory of the United States Olympic hockey team over the former Soviet Union. Greenwald then began tackling more social-political issues in his projects, including "Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal" (CBS, 1982), a docudrama about a housewife-turned-activist (Marsha Mason) who spearheads her community's fight against chemical dumping near Niagara Falls, and "In the Custody of Strangers" (ABC, 1982), about a teenager (Emilio Estevez) forced to spend 40 days in prison after going on a drunken rampage. Greenwald earned critical kudos and his earliest success when he directed "The Burning Bed" (NBC, 1984), a TV movie about a battered wife (Farah Fawcett) charged with the murder of her husband when she sets him on fire after years of abuse. Managing seemingly the impossible, Greenwald helped transform former "Charlie's Angel" Fawcett into a legitimate actor - she earned her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress - while "The Burning Bed" was nominated for Best Television Movie and went on to be the highest rated made-for-TV movie of its day.
Greenwald continued churning out MOWs throughout the 1980s and into the following decade while making occasional forays into the feature world. Though he failed to ever again reach the heights of "The Burning Bed" in television, he did rack up an impressive amount of quality credits, including "Silent Witness" (NBC, 1985), starring Valerie Bertinelli as a young woman who, after witnessing her brother-in-law rape a woman, is torn between testifying against him or choosing to remain silent for the sake of her family; "Shattered Spirits" (ABC, 1986), starring Martin Sheen in an Emmy Award-winning role as an abusive drunk whose alcoholism tears his family apart; and "Daddy" (ABC, 1987), about two high school students (Dermot Mulroney and Patricia Arquette) forced to contend with teenaged pregnancy. After directing his second feature, "Sweet Hearts Dance" (1988), a light romantic comedy about love both old and new, Greenwald put his executive producer stamp on "Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes" (NBC, 1990), a dramatization of the dropping of the first atomic bomb in 1945 and how it affected a group of Hiroshima citizens.
As Greenwald's credits racked up, he began amping up his socially- and politically-themed projects. After tackling the issue of wrongful imprisonment with "Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files" (TNT, 1990), he delved into the AIDS epidemic with "Our Sons" (ABC, 1991), starring Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret as two women from different social circles who come together when one's son starts dying from the disease. He turned to standard thriller territory with his third feature, "Hear No Evil" (1993), about a deaf physical trainer who seeks protection from her best friend when she discovers her life is threatened after a client is murdered. More movies-of-the-week padded the producer's resume, including "Zelda" (TNT, 1993), "Whose Daughter Is She?" (CBS, 1995), and "The Day Lincoln Was Shot" (TNT, 1998) - a minute-by-minute account of the events leading to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Greenwald then directed Russell Crowe and Salma Hayek in his fourth feature, "Breaking Up" (1997), a romantic comedy about a young couple wrestling with the idea of splitting up or continuing their volatile relationship. With Crowe three years from major stardom, the film was not well received and made little noise at the box office.
His next feature, "Steal This Movie" (2000), depicted the rise and fall of political agitator, Abbie Hoffman (Vincent D'Onofrio), who founded the Yippie! movement in 1968, helped foment the Chicago riot at the Democratic National Convention, and was put on trial as one of the infamous Chicago Seven - all the while, suffering constant FBI surveillance and the disintegration of his marriage to his wife, Anita (Janeane Garofolo).
Like many people throughout the country, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Greenwald suddenly found his voice as a political activist. He made the shift from docudramas and socially-themed movies to documentaries, starting with "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the War in Iraq" (2004), a hard-edged investigation in the ill-begotten Iraq War and its ever-shifting motives. He followed up "Uncovered" with the better known "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" (2004), a slicing exposé that detailed the erosion of quality journalism in the name of partisanship and propaganda as practiced by Fox News. Greenwald used numerous clips from the cable news station without its permission, forcing him to keep the project under wraps until its release, which initially was straight-to-video via an Internet and email campaign spearheaded by MoveOn.org. Over 100,000 copies were mailed directly to the audience, followed by a theatrical release a month later.
His next documentary, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" (2005), an inside look at the scurrilous business practices of the country's largest retail chain, also received the same undercover treatment as "Outfoxed," for fear of being sued by the multi-billion dollar corporation. Made for $2 million - Greenwald financed half himself; the other half came from two large investors and a few thousand smaller contributors - the film was released straight-to-DVD and screened around the country at schools, churches, synagogues and house parties organized on the Internet. Greenwald, meanwhile, made the rounds on the cable news programs and debated Wal-Mart supporters over the issues raised in the film - namely low wages, an unaffordable health care plan and the willful decimation of small businesses around the country. Wasting no time at all the passionate Greenwald got to work on his next documentary, "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" (2006) - a look at how private companies made a killing off the Iraq War with the tacit help of Washington decision makers. Greenwald chose the traditional route of releasing the film in theaters in hopes of attracting attention prior to the 2006 mid-term election.