Film Review: Paul Greengrass’ 22 July is Brutal and Thematically Rich

on October 09, 2018, 1:01pm

The Pitch: In 2011, the far-right, anti-Islam terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway in a pair of lone-wolf attacks. The first, a car bomb, exploded outside a tower block housing the office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The second found the 32-year old Breivik storming a summer camp — organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labour Party — on the island of Utøya, where he brutally gunned down dozens of teenagers. Here, writer/director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captan Phillips) dramatizes not just the attacks, but also the aftermath and its impact on the survivors and the country, which call for Breivik’s head. Greengrass’ dizzying narrative finds its touchstones in Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a survivor nursing physical and mental wounds; Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), Breivik’s duty-focused lawyer; and Breivik himself (Anders Danielsen Lie), who, clear-eyed and lucid, defies cries of insanity as he strives to frame his actions as an act of political revolution.

Is It Exploitative?: As he did with United 93, Greengrass has taken on the weight of a seismic tragedy, one so shockingly, resoundingly cruel that it’s been rendered taboo in discourse. The events of July 22nd, 2011 are sickening enough to even consider, let alone watch unfold, so enter 22 July with the knowledge that, yes, the assault itself is depicted. That alone might be enough to disqualify many viewers, but Greengrass wisely dials down on any physical violence, choosing instead to linger on Breivik’s methodical, unflinching process and the horrifying anxiety felt by those in his crosshairs. It’s very, very hard to watch, but also essential to his telling. The film’s first hour plays a lot like United 93, with the film’s disparate characters reacting to the tragedy in real time, without the sense of context and weight that viewers have. In this sense, it functions (also much like United 93) as more of a historical document than a piece of entertainment, a means of remembering what it was like in the moment, divorced from the political and social revelations that came in its aftermath. The fear and disorientation of the film’s first act then ripples throughout the rest of the film, as Greengrass digs into Breivik’s inability to view people beyond politics, and the ways in which this kind of attack can dismantle a democracy. .

Past, Present, Future: It’s in the events following the attack that 22 July emerges from the shadow of United 93. Where the latter lived entirely in the present tense, the former examines the tragedy through the lens of today’s fractured political and social landscape. Breivik counted himself a member of the white supremacist movement known as the Knights Templar, a precursor of sorts to the Charlottesville-marching alt-right as we know it today. (The medieval iconography Breivik embraced was heavily on display at the 2017 Unite the Right march.) Breivik called for a complete ban on immigration and an end to multiculturalism in the wake of the attacks, and it doesn’t take much massaging for Breivik’s rhetoric — considered fringe at the time — to echo what’s coming out of the White House these days. What the director does so well here is his depiction of the slow radicalization of these ideas, how they fester — harmlessly, one might think — across generations before manifesting in horrifically violent displays.

But 22 July is thematically rich in ways that don’t involve Breivik, thank god — Lie is brilliant in the role, but the character’s smirking sociopathy is exhausting. Greengrass is also concerned with the stability of government and law and order in the wake of such seismic attacks, and Øigarden’s Lippestad serves as a stalwart of democracy in the narrative, offering an honest defense of his client even as death threats pour into his home phone. Viljar, meanwhile, represents the idealistic youth, and the question of whether or not these attacks will break or make apathetic those who live to see another day.

Nail, Head: As elegant as Greengrass is with his storytelling, his capacity for metaphor can sometimes feel strained. After the attack, Viljar is left with bullet fragments in his brain that could kill him at any time, and the concept of lasting emotional trauma is interwoven with this detail more than is perhaps necessary. Furthermore, as affecting as Gravli is in the role, Viljar’s recovery story can’t help but feel conventional in all the ways that the rest of the movie doesn’t, with Viljar’s march towards catharsis feeling a bit too clean. Truly, his narrative could comprise a separate movie of its own, but here it’s interwoven with a film that’s straining to tell everyone’s stories.

The Verdict: 22 July is a thoughtful, gutting achievement that you’ll likely never want to watch again. Greengrass’ approach here is graceful and deeply resonant, but it’s undoubtedly draining, especially considering you still have roughly two hours to go after the shootings that ignite the narrative. That said, he gets incredible performances out of his leads. Lie is chillingly captivating in his confidence, while Øigarden delivers a master class in restraint, with his simmering, unarticulated resentment for his client bubbling just behind his sharp gaze. Greengrass also casts a wistful eye across Norway’s craggy beauty, with several of the film’s most cathartic moments unfolding against towering, snow-capped vistas.

It’s easy to ask “Why?” with a movie like this, but the truth is that, by virtue of their impact, events like the attacks of July 22nd can’t be ignored. The scar left on the world is too deep, and it’s imperative that, as a society, we look back in an effort to look forward. Breivik’s rhetoric is terrifying in its familiarity, and it’s impossible not to consider the wave of school shootings sweeping America while watching this particular shooter placidly reload his assault rifle. It won’t stop if we keep looking away.

Where’s It Playing? 22 July will hit Netflix and select theaters on October 10th.