Paul Greengrass is probably the worst person to tell the story of 22 July. Proving with Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips that he knows exactly how to make a real tragedy more harrowing by labouring over every impeccably-researched detail, he’s the kind of director who has the power to put you exactly where you don’t want to be.
In the case of July 22, that place is Utøya Island outside of Oslo, the moment in 2011 when right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 children who were all at a summer camp to debate how to make the world a better place. Some directors might go for sentimentality, others for sensationalism, but Greengrass restages the horror with cold, hard, uncompromising truth – giving us a deeply traumatic sense of what it must have looked, sounded and felt like to be caught up in one of the worst mass shootings in history.
Mercifully, the scene of the shooting only brings us to the half an hour mark, leaving another two hours for Greengrass to deal with the aftermath – delving deeply into the trauma, the survivor’s stories, the court case, the political maelstrom that followed and, of course, into the mind of Breivik himself. For a director known for his love of slow-building tension, it’s a remarkably brave, sensitive, decision to shift the drama away from Utøya so quickly – and it’s a decision that frames one of the most important political and artistic statements of his whole career.
This isn’t just a film about a terrorist attack – it’s a film about the power of democracy, civilization and due process. It’s a film about why terrorism is never going to win.
Anders Danielsen Lie (Joachim Trier’s muse from Reprise and Oslo, August 31st) is Anders Breivik, and he plays him less like a monster than a confused, driven, deluded loner. Breivik’s whole plan was to get attention for his “cause” on the world stage, and Greengrass doesn’t give it to him – letting him make his speeches, but undercutting his story with others that seem much more powerful.
If anything, this is Viljar’s (Jonas Gravli) film – one of the victims who survives a gunshot to the head and struggles to make sense of what’s happened, and why. As a spirited young student at the start of the film, he sees his whole generation as a force for positive change. As a frightened, hurt, disabled survivor with PSTD, nothing makes sense anymore, and all his hope has vanished.
Offering a third perspective is Jon Øigarden as Geir Lippestad, the lawyer who gets asked to defend Breivik at huge personal cost. Does a man like Breivik even deserve a defense? Lippestad’s wife, the teachers at his daughter’s school, an angry Norwegian public, and even Breivik himself seem to suggest that he doesn’t – but Lippestad knows that the rule of law is the only way to deal with anarchy.
Almost the opposite of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in every way, Øigarden nonetheless makes one of cinema’s great lawyers in the role of Lippestad – quietly, diligently, painfully defending a monster that he knows is still a man. As he struggles with how to deal with Breivik, and how to treat him with the same civility that he refused to show his victims, Lippestad becomes the voice of reason that’s so often lacking from dialogues about terrorism – including Greengrass’ own bare-bones approach in United 93.
At its heart, July 22 is a film about hope. Filmed in English (using mostly Norwegian actors), the weight of Greengrass’ smartly balanced script is surely meant to be felt across the world, wherever individual acts of terrorism are causing people to question the morality of their political institutions.
Doing monumental justice to the young victims of Utøya who died believing in the power of the future, it’s hard to imagine their story being told in a more fitting way. A staggering act of bravery in its own right, July 22 is a film that needs to be seen.
July 22 is streaming on Netflix now.