Between Bloody Sunday, Omagh, Captain Phillips, United 93, and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Paul Greengrass has made a career of dramatising real-life terror and violence. Though better known to mainstream audiences for his Bourne films, Greengrass is superb at bringing these true stories to life, melding gritty realism and often sensitive politics with a humanity untainted by sentimentality. His latest film, 22 July, tackles a shockingly recent act of terrorism: the 2011 attacks in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik that, between a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at the Utøya island summer camp, claimed 77 lives.
Needless to say, it’s a tough watch.
Greengrass’ telling follows four main narratives: that of Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager at Utøya who’s shot and nearly killed; of Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth); of lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), called in to defend Breivik; and of Breivik himself (Anders Danielsen Lie). Their prominence waxes and wanes depending on their place in the narrative, but all four present unique perspectives on the tragedy.
22 July begins, unremarkably, on the morning of the event. A group of young “future leaders” prepares for a retreat at Utøya. The Prime Minister prepares for what looks to be a fairly routine day. And Anders Behring Breivik prepares guns, armour, and explosives for his assault on Oslo's children. The first half of the film plays out coldly and matter-of-factly, in Greengrass’ trademark ultra-realist handheld style, following Breivik’s procedure and transitioning to the kids’ point of view once he reaches the island. That’s where Greengrass starts really tightening his vicelike grip on the audience.
Though it doesn’t take place in a single shot like competing film U - July 22, Greengrass’ take on the shooting nonetheless effectively captures the panic of the event. As Viljar flees with his brother, fellow students dropping sickeningly to the ground around them, the tension and horror is disarmingly real. We feel every bullet’s impact; grow more anxious with every distant gunshot and scream. It’s rare to see this kind of mass shooting onscreen, for obvious reasons of taste and respect, but that only makes 22 July more powerful. We’re not jaded to this kind of onscreen violence. We’re right there with the victims and survivors in an unimaginably terrifying scenario.
The second half of the film deals with the aftershocks of Breivik’s crimes, and represents the real dramatic meat of the film. In a sense, it’s an investigation of how the judicial process works in such a cut-and-dry case. Lawyer Lippestad finds himself in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible, receiving death threats and wrestling with his conscience even as he attempts to argue temporary insanity for a client he despises. Breivik sees his trial as part of his plan, an opportunity to toy with law enforcement and speak his mind to the nation, while the Prime Minister is forced to step up to calm mourning citizens demanding to know what the hell went wrong. And most poignantly, Viljar and his friends just want to be able to heal, grow up, and move on. But moving on is tough - especially when your would-be murderer can stare you dead in the face.
22 July’s greatest strength is its cast. Given that it’s populated by Norwegian actors largely unknown outside their native country, it’s easy for international audiences to get drawn in to their sorrow, their anger, and their love. Performing in English, presumably to make the film more viable for distributor Netflix, doesn’t seem to cut into the performances. They're all strong, but Gravli in particular, as the physically and emotionally wounded Viljar, is the raw heart of the film, an empathetic mirror image to Lie’s icy Breivik. We identify with him almost by default, but Gravli earns our empathy, building to a tearjerking emotional conclusion - or rather, an intentionally frustrating lack of conclusion.
The scariest thing about 22 July is not the shooting. It’s that back in 2011, Breivik’s manifesto - calling for an end to immigration and “forced multiculturalism” in favour of a whites-only state - seemed completely outrageous, while today we see similar ideas in the media all the damn time. Greengrass doesn’t directly tie Breivik’s crimes to the broader rise of ethno-nationalism, but he doesn’t have to. In Breivik, we can see all-too-familiar attributes: the same hate, the same entitlement, the same smug white-male sense of superiority as other attackers like him. Donald Trump's rise to power has opened the Overton window so wide that even the ideas espoused by mass shooters are being engaged with in society now.
22 July doesn’t have anything revolutionary to say about Breivik or his actions. What is there to offer, other than total condemnation? Inevitably, that's the film’s greatest weakness: there’s little additional perspective to add to an event like this. Greengrass pulls off a harrowing dramatisation of an unthinkable massacre, and carefully probes the legal response to it. But it’s the human side of the film that sticks around in the brain: a moving story of trauma and recuperation - and of facing a monster.