22 July movie review: Netflix’s latest film is a harrowing account of 2011 Norway attacks
Director - Paul Greengrass
Cast - Anders Danielsen Lie, Jon Øigarden, Jonas Strand Gravli, Ola G. Furuseth
Rating - 3.5/5
A few years after surviving its biggest tragedy since World War 2, the voice of a nation wrote about how his country collectively healed. Karl Ove Knausgaard, in a piece for the New Yorker titled ‘Anders Breivik’s Inexplicable Crime’, wrote that like most Norwegians on July 22, 2011, he cried when he heard what had happened.
Breivik, a 32-year-old right-wing extremist, had parked a van loaded with home-made explosives outside a government office in Oslo, lit the fuse and run away. He had then driven to the island of Utøya, where hundreds of teenagers had gathered for a summer camp. The car bomb took eight lives, and his subsequent rampage on Utøya claimed another 69. Breivik surrendered the moment the police arrived, which was more than an hour after he had first pulled the trigger.
A nation mourned. For a country that would swell with pride every time one of its people made international news, this was an unprecedented moment of shame. In one of the most poignant passages of his New Yorker piece, Knausgaard wrote that everyone knew someone who knew someone who was affected by the attack. A survey later approximated that the number was around one in four. Such is Norway.
Watch the 22 July trailer here
In director Paul Greengrass’ new film, aptly and simply titled 22 July, the filmmaker has had even more time to examine the tragedy, and reflect on the wake of destruction it left behind. In 22 July - the first in a wave of new Netflix films by celebrated directors that includes the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar frontrunner, Roma - Greengrass tells his story through multiple perspectives - most problematically, also Breivik’s. But the strongest character in the film is the nation itself. Norway. The characters represent everything the country is most proud about; progressive politics, an egalitarian society - ‘the distance from top to bottom is short,’ Knausgaard explained - and the deeply ingrained humanity of its people.
When he is not busy making Jason Bourne films, Greengrass concentrates his efforts in telling stories about national tragedies, and the strength common people are capable of in difficult times. His first in this unofficial and presumably unplanned trilogy was 2002’s Bloody Sunday, a film about the 1972 shooting in Derry, Northern Ireland. His second - and the one that earned him his Oscar nomination - was United 93, a taut thriller about the one plane that didn’t hit its target on September 11, 2001.
Each of these films, including 22 July, is about bravery, about how - and this is the inherent optimism of Greengrass’ films - common people are compelled to do good when confronted by the forces of evil. In its own way, 22 July is perhaps the most humane anti-war movie since Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.
Norway could have responded in several different ways after the attacks. They could have reacted out of fear and given in to Breivik’s mad demands - while shooting children he was yelling nonsense about liberals and elites and Marxists - or they could have very understandably considered this as an extreme case and bent certain rules. But they didn’t. As their then Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, says in the film, “We will fight him with the rule of law and not with the barrel of a gun.”
The actual massacre is, thankfully, rather short. Greengrass shoots with his trademark handheld style, utilising a largely Norwegian crew to depict a most harrowing opening 20 minutes of any film you’re likely to have seen this year. Breivik slinks around the island, preying upon terrified kids, scoping them out, cornering them, and finishing them off in moments of brutal and confrontational violence. The screams of terror are broken only by the bangs of Breivik’s assault rifles. There is no music to manipulate your feelings - as always, Greengrass relies on a documentary style to convey his messages. You cannot - you must not - look away.
But once these troubling but necessary scenes are over, the film appears to take a beat, and after gathering its thoughts, goes about methodically connecting the various strands of this story - of the one survivor whose life has been irreparably damaged by the attacks; of Breivik’s lawyer, duty bound to defend a monster; and a PM who isn’t above admitting his mistakes.
Through these points of contact, Greengrass establishes and retains an emotional centre, even when the film takes on a very distant approach, and becomes a metaphor for the times we live in.
A huge part of the nation’s healing process was its courts’ decision to give Breivik a very public, 10-week trial, where everyone saw for the first time who they were up against, thereby giving them the necessary strength to challenge him. Together.
And this is the film’s central theme: resilience, and mercy. Breivik is perhaps the most detested person in Norwegian history - and as played by Anders Danielsen Lie, he is evil made manifest. He sneers during questioning; poses for cameras, having deluded himself into believing that he is some sort of revolutionary; and attempts to dictate courtroom proceedings.
And yet, he was treated, as the film reminds us on numerous occasions, ‘just like any other defendant.’ Breivik was given a 21 year sentence in a maximum security facility - which in the profoundly progressive Norway could mean a stint at a stunning countryside farmhouse with unarmed guards occasionally checking in. They do this because they honestly believe that even the cruelest among us are entitled to their rights, and have the capacity to rehabilitate themselves.
Breivik isn’t one of the farmhouse prisoners, and his sentence can (and will) be extended. But in times like these, perhaps our own industry can take a lesson or two from 22 July in how to correctly show cinematic nationalism - it’s the people that matter, and not the politics. And no matter how many divisions you want to create, kindness will always trump hate.