Not to pull any punches, but 22 July, from director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, Bloody Sunday), will likely be the most difficult film for anyone to sit through because of the filmmaker’s commitment to honestly re-create the horror that occurred on that 2011 day in Norway. A right-wing terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik first set off a car bomb outside the Prime Minister’s office, then moved on to his real target, an island-based leadership camp for teens, just off the coast of Oslo. He disguised himself as police and proceeded to slaughter a total of 77 people (wounding more than 200) in the single deadliest attack in that country’s history, using what seems like a never-ending supply of weapons and ammunition.
But the attacks are only a fraction of what 22 July is about, and as detailed and unflinching as Greengrass’ work can be, he is far more interested in illustrating the emotional toll that was taken on the hearts of the survivors, their families, and the nation, as the reality of the danger of extremist groups in Europe settles into the collective mindset. Divided into three deeply connected stories, the film is much more about the process of recovery and sorting through the raw emotions and political reality of this normally peaceful country’s new outlook.
The most essential portion of the film belongs to survivor Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who was shot several times on the island, losing his right eye and barely surviving the surgery that ended up saving his life. We follow him through his months-long journey—first the relief that his brother survived unhurt, then discovering how many of his closest friends were murdered, his slow and painful physical rehabilitation, and finally his decision to testify at Breivik’s trial and face the man who wanted him dead for no other reason than he represented the future leadership of Norway. The idea that Gravli has to play so many versions of Viljar is extraordinary and would be challenging to even the most seasoned actor, but he handles it with a dignity and grace that is almost impossible to believe, even as you’re watching it. It’s a performance you won’t soon forget.
Speaking of which, another section of the film deals with Breivik’s capture and trial. Anders Danielsen Lie plays the icy mass murderer with a cocky assurance that makes you realize that you would likely have loathed this man even if he hadn’t committed such horrendous crimes. He’s open and honest with authorities, and it’s clear that the police’s concern of another attack (it takes them a while to realize he acted alone) was not unwarranted. But instead of a third attack with weapons, his final assault will be with his words during his hearing. His only concern is being able to make a statement during the trial, and it’s the lawyers job to defuse the power of his words before he speaks them.
As is procedure in Norway, Breivik was allowed to select any lawyer he wanted to defend him, and he selects Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who he had seen defend another right-wing extremist, even though Lippestad is Jewish. The trial does a number on the defense attorney and his family as well. The film does not demonize him in any way, showing him as more of a utterly professional, if reluctant, participant.
The third storyline is perhaps the driest but no less interesting, as Greengrass walks us through the investigation of the official governmental response to the attacks, from security measures to response times; the final report is fairly damning toward all concerned, including the Prime Minister, who takes full responsibility and vows to improve protections without turning his country into an isolationist fortress.
Working from a screenplay by Ulf Kjell Gür (based on the book One of Us by Åsne Seierstad), the story’s straightforward, no-frills approach manages to maximize the unfathomable reality of it all, as well as the emotional impact. At no point does Greengrass attempt to portray Breivik as anything other than a misguided, murderous person, even as we dig into his home life and his role in the extremist world, in search for that moment when his humanity slipped away. During the final, extended courtroom sequence, it’s impossible not to hang on every word from both Breivik and those who survived his actions—a handful of kids who were asked to speak for their dead classmates and friends.
22 July is not an easy film to watch, but if you get through the opening 30 minutes or so, it’s certainly a rewarding and poignant work that deserves an audience, especially in this time in America where mass shootings are a part of the monthly landscape and extremist behavior is practically encouraged by those running the country. The temptation is to say, “It’s only a matter of time,” when in fact, we may already be there.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and is streaming on Netflix.