1. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime—so viscerally upsetting yet oddly triumphant, so unnervingly adept at transporting us back into the headspace of that horrible day, that it’s almost too much for a rewatch. My heart’s beating and I’m breathing more quickly just thinking about it. Greengrass’s specialty, even in the Bourne movies, is putting you at eye-level, right smack in the middle of the action. He can make you feel as disoriented as everyone involved, to the point that you feel like you are involved. It’s a powerful, sometimes overwhelming skill. It can be too much.
2. The first half hour of 22 July is, at times, near-impossible to watch. Greengrass has chosen to recreate the events of the 2011 Norway terror attacks by Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right white supremacist who set off a bomb in Oslo and then shot and killed 69 people, mostly teenagers and children, at a summer camp in Utoya. Of all the events he might wish to dramatize, this is perhaps the most gruesome and grueling: the random, indiscriminate shooting of children. But Greengrass, for better or worse, has a little bit more on his mind this time. Whereas United 93 focused solely on that flight, in nearly real-time, here the actual attacks only take up about a fifth of the film. The rest of the movie is Greengrass dealing with the aftermath, how politicians, victims, family members and Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) himself (along with his deeply anguished attorney) try to recover and react to the monstrous act. In this way, it’s like United 93 with a dramatization of The 9/11 Commission Report tacked onto the end.
3. Thus, after the shooting, portrayed with the horror and revulsion that you’d expect—especially since the director chooses to put Breivik front and center, a decision that has led to a certain amount of controversy—Greengrass follows several different plotlines. There is the macro reaction, how politicians and officials figure out what happened and how it could have been prevented, seen mostly through the eyes of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stolenberg (Ola G. Furuseth). We see Breivik and his lawyer (Jon Øigarden) battle back and forth, with the lawyer knowing his professional obligations but struggling not just with the moral implications but with the practical blowback of representing such a loathsome client. And mostly, we deal with the victims and their families, particularly Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who was shot multiple times by Breivik while trying to protect his brother and wakes up after a long coma with bullet shards in his brain stem and a potentially endless recovery. The message is clear: The shooting may have only lasted a few hours, but its ramifications billow out for decades to come.
4. This approach has its limitations, not least of which because Greengrass’s strength is not, as it turns out, in long scenes of families talking through their fears and struggles. As moving as the families’ recoveries can be, and as earnest as Greengrass is at trying to honor their stories, there is an undeniable waft of the familiar in his dramatization of their difficulties. Greengrass hasn’t found a new spin on this sort of material. You admire the resilience, but I’m not sure Greengrass makes you feel it. Typically, Greengrass has taken a curious, and effective, objectivity to these sort of stories: The strategy has been to be as dispassionate, as realistic, as possible to make the tragedy hit home even harder. Here, he’s a little more invested, a little more overtly dramatic. This might make him a better human being, but I’m not sure it makes the movie any more arresting. It’s undeniable that 22 July never quite recovers from the power of the shooting itself.
5. Of course, the victims never quite recover either, which is partly Greengrass’s point, even if it takes a while for him to get there. (At 145 minutes, the movie starts to become a somewhat uncomfortable sit, particularly if you watch it on Netflix.) But while his heart is with the survivors, the dramatist can’t help but keep coming back to Breivik, played with icy, terrifying dead-souled intensity by Lie, who was equally terrific in Joachim Trier’s Oslo August 31st. Everyone in this film is looking for answers, but when you look in his eyes, as we are forced to do in the film’s conclusion, maybe the most horrifying thing is that there’s nothing there but the absolute certainty he is right. How do you fight that? How do you combat that? No one in 22 July knows, which is why all they can do is focus on themselves, and their own recoveries, and their own battles. It might not fix anything, it might not make a difference at all…but it’s all they can do. Greengrass is right there with them. He doesn’t have any answers either.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Anderson Danielsen Lie, Thorbjorn Harr, Jonas Strand Gravli
Release Date: October 10, 2018 (on Netflix and in select cities)
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.