[This is a repost of my review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. 22 July opens today in limited release and is also available on Netflix.]
Although Paul Greengrass has dealt with real-world violence before, specifically in his movies Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Captain Phillips, his new film, 22 July, is the first time he has explored the aftermath of an attack. You get the sense from the film that Greengrass recognizes we’re in a new moment in history (before today’s screening at TIFF, he noted that we are living in “unprecedented times”) where the far right is on the rise throughout the Western world, and so he needs a different kind of movie to meet this moment. It’s not enough to simply show the particulars of a terrorist act; we must also recognize how to deal with the fallout. As always, Greengrass does not shy away from the brutality and evil of terrorism, but 22 July unflinchingly looks at how extremists may sit in smug satisfaction, but they will never have the strength of those who fight for what’s good in this world.
The first half-hour of 22 July is deeply difficult to watch as Greengrass shows terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) preparing and carrying out a bombing on a government building in Oslo before traveling to Utøya Island disguised as a policeman so he can shoot and kill teenagers attending a youth leadership camp. The movie then splits after the capture of Breivik, switching between scenes featuring the terrorist taking full advantage of Norway’s legal system, and scenes about the recovery of Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager shot five times on Utøya by Breivik. As Breivik makes his way through the judicial process with the deeply reluctant aid of his handpicked lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), Viljar struggles to not only heal his broken body, but also deal with the mental trauma he suffered as a result of Breivik’s actions.
22 July is set in Norway, but the entire cast speaks English because it feels like Greengrass is really making this not for the people of Norway, who rose to the challenge and held fast to their democracy, but for the people of the U.S. That’s not to say that Americans are somehow weaker than Norwegians, but Greengrass knows he’s pushing buttons as he shows Breivik in relative comfort, able to choose his lawyer, read a statement from the courtroom, and not even worry about the death penalty. Meanwhile, nightmares plague poor Viljar, who also suffers from blindness in one eye, a broken body, and bullet shards stuck in his brain that could kill him at any time. It’s fundamentally unfair, and in those moments, we’re tempted to call out for a Jack Bauer type to torture the hell out of Breivik to make us feel better.
But the challenge Greengrass presents is not about what makes us feel better, but what makes us better than those who would seek to do us harm. For some, this line of thinking and the resolution Greengrass comes to will be far too pat and naïve. To be fair, Greengrass isn’t interested in looking at what created Breivik or why extremism, be it from the far right or any other belief system, exists at all. To do so would likely be pedantic and ill advised because extremism is here, and the real question is what do we do when we’re confronted with it? People espousing Breivik’s view that immigration must be shut down and “forced multiculturalism” must cease aren’t isolated lunatics. They’re here. They’re in government. They’re in our government. Hating these bigots is satisfying and understandable, but it isn’t enough.
I don’t know if 22 July will change anyone’s mind. It’s undoubtedly an expertly made movie, the kind we’ve come to expect from Greengrass at this point (the occasional misfire like Jason Bourne not withstanding). Lie gives a chilling performance as Breivik and Gravli is deeply sympathetic as Viljar. But for some viewers, most of whom will see this movie on Netflix, which produced the picture, they won’t get past the harrowing first act. Others will become infuriated with Norway’s restrained treatment of Breivik as Viljar suffers constantly. And ultimately the payoff may not be enough with the conclusion sounding more like a homily than a realistic way to deal with terrorism.
And yet I couldn’t help but be deeply moved by 22 July. The first act almost brought me to tears to see so many families in pain and to think of the real people who lost their lives and the parents who lost their children because a madman felt like he was fighting a war against multiculturalism. From there, you really only have two options as a storyteller. You can opt for nihilism, say that the world is a cruel, unforgiving place and that only force can meet force until we’re all destroyed. Or, as Greengrass does, you can place your bet on young people like Viljar. You can bet that they won’t let the world further descend into chaos, and that despite their pain and anger, they will lead us to something better and uphold the democracy extremists seek to tear down. You may not believe that story, but it’s the one that should be told regardless.