The first half-hour of director Paul Greengrass’ 22 July is about as terrifying a stretch of filmmaking as you’ll see this or any other year. It recounts the horrific events of July 22, 2011 in Norway, when a far-right terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik first planted a bomb in a van parked at the building housing the offices of the prime minister. He left the bomb to explode–killing eight and injuring more than 200–while he headed for the nearby island of Utoya, where he opened fire on hundreds of teenagers at a youth summer camp, killing 69 and injuring another 110.
The attacks were the worst in Norway since World War II, and Greengrass captures every terrifying, heartbreaking minute of them, dispensing with the shaky, nearly incoherent cinematography that were a hallmark of his overrated Bourne films while keeping the suspense and shock of the events at a nearly unbearable boil here. At one point, this viewer wanted to literally scream at the screen as the police cars raced to a jetty where they could board boats to get to the island (there were no helicopters immediately available, a point of contention in the later investigation), with Greengrass cutting rapidly between the scene on the mainland and the carnage perpetrated on Utoya.
That first act casts a miasma of grief, fury and incomprehension over the rest of 22 July, which spends nearly two more hours detailing the aftermath of the attacks on several fronts. And here’s where Greengrass, who also wrote the film, makes the error that keeps one wondering what exactly he is trying to say with his latest recounting of a real-life terror attack (following films like Omagh, United 93, and Captain Phillips).
The film follows several storylines that emanate from the attacks, with some–like the response from the government under the leadership of prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth)–getting less screen time than the two main threads: the first follows one of the survivors from the island, a teen named Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), as he recuperates from catastrophic injuries and eventually must confront his attacker in a courtroom; the other is the story of Breivik himself, played with chilling intensity and clarity by Anders Danielsen Lie, as he prepares for and goes through his trial with his reluctant attorney, Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden).
But as Greengrass follows these stories and other subplots that split off from them (like the death threats made against Lippestad), none of them except perhaps the Hanssen story (and only that intermittently) gets the kind of depth and exploration needed to make them fully hit home. Whereas United 93 focused with limited laser precision on the real-time events of the September 11th terror attacks, 22 July tries to encompass all the longterm effects of such a tragedy yet dilutes their impact.
For example, subplots such as the threats made against Lippestad (whose own reason for taking the case is only vaguely addressed) are given a scene and then dropped. The same goes for the government investigation and even the sociopolitical context of rising far-right activism in Western Europe (personified by one witness who ends up disowning Breivik even as he offers a skin-crawling admonition that the far right is on the march). The overall effect makes 22 July feel like the greatest hits of a far longer work — perhaps a limited series–that has been edited for theatrical release (which is ironic since Netflix, home of so many such series, is distributing this picture).
That’s not to say that 22 July doesn’t have its moments. There are several moving passages in the film, most of them concerning Hanssen as he overcomes his fear and torment and gradually reconnects with his family and other survivors. But the trial veers between gripping and antiseptic, and the scenes between Breivik and Lippestad (while featuring excellent performances from both actors) smack a bit of Hannibal-vs-Clarice melodrama. Breivik seems to have invested himself in the idea of playing a monster right out of a horror novel, but the film doesn’t work hard enough until the end at showing us what a pathetic, sad, cowardly waste of human life he really was.
The more restrained camerawork, location filming, and overall excellence of the cast (and bravo to Greengrass for working with all Norwegian actors, which does bring a verisimilitude and soul to the performances that perhaps can’t be quantified) make 22 July as watchable as it can be, even if the pacing and the nature of the events are likely to put off some viewers.
Greengrass has often described himself as an apolitical filmmaker who lets his subject matter and films speak for themselves, but in casting such an expansive net for this one, he may have blunted the real and frightening message at its core: the far right is indeed awake, in Europe and in the U.S., and whether it’s a lone wolf lunatic or a coordinated quasi-military cell, they present more of a threat to our democracy and way of life than any of the perceived enemies they bluster about. The opening nightmare of 22 July drives that point home, even if the rest of the movie struggles to sustain it.
22 July opens in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday, Oct. 10.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye