Film Critic Alex Green reviews Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, the first of two films that looks at the Norwegian terror attack of 22 July 2011
The Norwegian terror attack of July 22nd, 2011 was an awful event in our history. Norway went through a dark, uncertain period after Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a dual strike on both a government building in Oslo and a camp on Utøya island. Norway was changed on that day and the weeks following as they were forced to face the horrors before they became something that is reported on far too often. Paul Greengrass, director of the excellent Captain Phillips and Bourne trilogy, has commandeered the tricky task of depicting these events in his latest picture, 22 July.
22 July depicts the story of the horrendous attack from two key points – a dual narrative showing both Breivik carrying out his attack and going through his trial process, and the story of Viljar Hanssen, a teenager on Utøya at the time of the attack. During the first forty minutes, the attack is depicted directly and Greengrass does not shy away from showing the chaos and tragedy as Breivik rampages across the island. He refuses to step back, putting the viewer in the thick of the attack. It is nerve-shredding and one of the hardest to watch openings I have seen in a film. And whilst it isn’t glamorised it is a difficult opening; it isn’t for everyone. If you do not feel comfortable with this kind of material, this film is not for you.
Overall, 22 July is a well-filmed political thriller that does miss the mark in a few areas but is thematically rich, with its share of interesting characters. The dual narrative helps the film provide the strongest narrative points. Anders Danielsen Lie and Jonas Strand Gravli are excellent as Breivik and Viljar respectively, with Lie providing a chilling performance of a man totally controlled and freakishly calm in what he does. Conversely, Gravli provides an emotional performance as a young man who, tortured by the tragedy, must rebuild his life with his family. He is the emotional centre of the film. Also providing strong supporting performances are Maria Bock as Viljar’s mother, Christin Kristoffersen and Jon Øigarden as lawyer Geir Lippestad, who must represent Breivik despite his horrific crimes. After all, he is ‘entitled to a defence, like everyone else.’
This issue is at the forefront of 22 July, with Breivik describing himself as a soldier – a man who wants to be heard – and treats his trial as a platform to entertain his devious notions. This idea is explored to the fullest with the Norwegian PM saying ‘he is listening,’ and the film taps into this notion effortlessly, asking what kind of stage we should give these people. The film uses this among other concepts, such as the physical and mental recovery after, to weight the film in an intense atmosphere. One of the most impressive aspects is how Greengrass focuses on young people and the power they have, with Breivik describing them as the ‘leaders of tomorrow.’ Here, young people are treated as forward thinking, brave people. Greengrass doesn’t hide this strength in vulnerability and the power of acting. It’s a strangely hopeful thematic counterpoint that really works in the film’s conclusion.
That said, you can’t help but notice some of the issues. Greengrass’ infamous style of ‘shaky cam’ is here. He, for the most part, refuses to lock down the camera, obviously implanting the viewer into the terror, which is achieved with some strong cinematography to boot. While this works well for the most part to dramatic and horrifying effect, he sometimes uses it in scenes where it doesn’t add anything. It is clear that taking a step back sometimes would have helped, as the effect really starts to distract in some of the dialogue scenes. In addition, whilst the story is mostly solid, one character who is not entirely well handled is the PM Jens Stoltenberg who (whilst played well by Ola G. Furuseth) does not get enough screen time to show and develop his inner thoughts. This means the resolution to his arc falls flat as the necessary legwork has not been done by the film. As an important character for obvious reasons, he feels too much of an afterthought. Finally, while there is a blatant attempt to say that the country is furious and angry, it does not quite connect in the film. For a film clocking at 143 minutes, these decisions are somewhat understandable – though it is a shame these interesting elements were not expanded upon.
VERDICT: It’s a challenging watch with some narrative missteps, but overall July 22 is a strongly directed political thriller which champions confronting the harsh realities of our world – and does this with excellent characters, performances and themes.