22 July

Studio: Netflix
Directed by Paul Greengrass

Oct 09, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Director Paul Greengrass's new film 22 July recounts the harrowing 2011 Norway terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Perpetrated by lone wolf, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik (played in this film by Anders Danielsen Lie), these attacks were twofold: a bombing of a government building in the capital Oslo and a shooting spree at a political youth camp on the island of Utøya.

This isn't Greengrass's only attempt to painstakingly reconstruct a terrorist attack on film. He received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 2006's United 93, which depicted the passenger-led thwarting of terrorists' efforts to hijack and weaponize a U.S. plane in the September 11th attacks of 2001.

In both instances Greengrass has fielded criticism for making a film too soon after the actual events. But it might be that, for those alive when the events unfolded, there is no right time for Greengrass to release these films. Because of their realism, these films are painful to watch — and to hear. In 22 July, gunshots ring out with alarming clarity, the din of which will reverberate in viewers' minds afterwards as it does with the film's main protagonist, a camper named Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli).

Greengrass's inclination towards making movies that depict actual events stems from his time as a director for the British investigative news program World in Action. Since becoming a feature film director, Greengrass has often borrowed the aesthetics of documentary for his scripted films — primarily handheld camera and naturalistic lighting.

No matter how hard it is to look at, Greengrass clearly has a yearning to show us the truth. The problem is, reconstructing truth visually is hard to do well, and 22 July's success in doing so varies.

During the moment of the explosion in Oslo, Greengrass and editor William Goldenberg cut in actual security camera footage of the blast. Although very brief, the physics seen at play in that footage transmit more consciousness of that moment than the shots of a computer-generated explosion that surround it. Blood splatters, seen later, look similarly spurious.

Additionally, despite his tenure as a journalist, Greengrass (who also wrote the screenplay) takes liberties with the truth when it comes to story. In real life, when Breivik was apprehended by police, an innocent 17-year-old camper was also jailed and interrogated, released only the following day when they realized he was not an accomplice. Greengrass's film makes no mention of this. Later in the film, in the evening after the attacks, the death toll is said to be 8 in Oslo and 69 on Utøya. Those totals wouldn’t be determined until days later, however, in part because some victims continued to cling to life in hospital care that evening. On these and other realities, Greengrass figures: why let the truth complicate the story?

Similarly, with American and British palates in mind, all dialogue in the film has been given an Anglo-washing. Although the vast majority of Norwegians do speak English as a second language, the ubiquitousness of the language, as it's depicted in the film, is incongruous with reality.

Despite these potential shortcomings, 22 July is a good film. Capable camera direction and editing both help to captivate the audience while providing clarity as the viewer is carefully spirited between the perspectives of Viljar, his parents, Breivik, Breivik's lawyer, the prime minister, and others.

Both Lie and Gravli deliver skilled performances, and Jon Øigarden deserves special praise in portraying Breivik's laywer Geir Lippestad, a man caught in a vise between seemingly-incompatible principles.

Those wondering why these heinous attacks should be rehashed in the form of a so-called "docudrama" may find the answer in Greengrass's exploration of how survivors can move forward with their lives (an afterword for which viewers of United 93 were denied). Viljar verbalizes these notions for himself, personally, but the words can be heard as a roadmap forward for Norway or perhaps any people where violent acts like these are committed. The message isn't new but may bear repeating as long as the violence does.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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