Movie Review: ’22 July’ is an important film, though slightly mishandled
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Paul Greengrass, Åsne Seierstad (based upon the book “One of Us” by)
Stars: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden
Synopsis: A three-part story of Norway’s worst terrorist attack in which over seventy people were killed. 22 July looks at the disaster itself, the survivors, Norway’s political system and the lawyers who worked on this horrific case.
There may be questions in your mind after watching 22 July, the latest film from director Paul Greengrass, about whether a film like this should even be made. Is it tasteless for a film to recount in such vivid detail the traumatic experience of so many in Norway on July 22, 2011? Is such an endeavor wrong on its face?
Similar questions have been asked of other films, including another film directed by Greengrass – United 93. Just as I felt with that film, I don’t think 22 July is tasteless or wrong. I’m not sure any film can adequately provide space for us to consider and reckon with such wanton evil and hate.
But I think we must try.
The film depicts the harrowing terror attacks in and around Oslo, Norway on that day that has become known as “22 July” by Norwegians. A man named Anders Behring Breivik filled a van with fertilizer and chemicals and detonated this makeshift bomb outside an Oslo government building. He then travelled to a nearby island where a local youth camp was being held. Impersonating a police officer with a makeshift uniform, he gathered everyone up and opened fire. By the end of the day, he had killed 77 people and injured many others.
I must say, I was not aware of these attacks, or I at least do not remember being aware of them at the time. I would have just graduated from high school – certainly old enough that I should have been aware of something like this. Maybe that’s being too hard on myself, but I lived through 9/11. I remember how other countries supported us in that time of need, and I remember taking comfort in that even as a young boy. Yet, I knew nothing of this horrible tragedy. That realization brought so much sadness as I began watching this film. And you will be confronted with the horrific nature of this attack right from the beginning. I cannot lie to you, this film is brutally graphic in its depiction of these terror attacks. It is horrific to watch. In an article from Rolling Stone, Greengrass recounts how he consulted with the families prior to filming these scenes. The families encouraged him that sanitizing the violence would be a disservice to the memory of their loved ones. At the same time, they made it clear that exploiting the violence or being gratuitous with it would be disrespectful. And so, Greengrass was left with a very fine line to tread.
Each viewer will have to decide for themselves if he succeeds in that regard. It may be an impossible task. I think this is some of the most disturbing violence I’ve ever seen in a film. Much of that goes to the performance of Anders Danielsen Lie who plays Breivik. In that same Rolling Stone article, Danielsen Lie says that he had to go into a sort of dissociative state. Survivors of the attack had told Danielsen Lie that Breivik had been incredibly calm, and I think that is part of what makes these early scenes so harrowing. There is nothing in that face. Nothing.
Again, many will wonder whether or not these scenes are necessary. That is a decision that everyone must make for themselves. What I can say after watching the film is that those early scenes are certainly necessary for the narrative that Greengrass attempts to build. For the later scenes to work, for better or worse, we must see the graphic early scenes.
Greengrass is known for his ability to direct chaos. I am, personally, a fan of his work in films like United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Captain Phillips. It is United 93 that probably comes to mind most readily when watching this film, because of its similar subject matter. But there, the focus was on the heroism of the men and women in the midst of terrorism. Here, the main focus is on how the pieces are picked up afterwards and the larger context surrounding the events.
Much of the film’s storyline centers on Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a young man participating in the youth camp who survives the attack. He survives, but he is left with bullet shards near his brain stem that are a constant threat on his life. Greengrass showcases Viljar’s strenuous therapy, as he has to learn how to do everything again – even walk. It is a powerful story of resiliency and strength. The film goes to even greater depths when it seeks to unpack the idea that strength is not only found in outward displays of fortitude, but it can also be found in authentic displays of weakness. This comes in a conversation between Viljar and Lara Rachid (Seda Witt), one of his friends from the camp who also survived.
The concurrent plot line is that of Breivik. Again, some may question the amount of screen time that Greengrass gives to Breivik and his views. It seems that the reasoning here is that Greengrass is attempting to connect these terror attacks to larger cultural shifts around the globe. Those of us in America will certainly recognize some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. As valiant as this effort may be, I think Mr. Greengrass falters when he diverts too much of his focus from the individual lives affected by this tragedy to the larger contextual issues at play. I think he had more than enough ground during the film’s final act to speak to those cultural shifts (more on that to come). But the film’s middle third slows down as Greengrass shows the government investigation into the terror attack, for instance. If some of those middle scenes had been edited down, I think this would be a much stronger film. It would also help with the film’s length, which at 143 minutes is rather long.
The final narrative component comes in the person of Breivik’s lawyer, Geir Lippestad. As a criminal defense attorney, it is his job to defend people who seemingly have no defense. Breivik specifically asks for Lippestad since he had previously defended a neo-Nazi. Lippestad’s entire life is thrown upside down as his family receives death threats and they are forced to remove their daughter from her school. The film seemingly never draws any overt conclusions about Lippestad’s actions. Are we to wonder about a system that provides so many freedoms to a man like Breivik in such court proceedings? Maybe. The film certainly gives clear references to the rights that are afforded to Breivik. While I was intrigued by Lippestad’s role in this story and I do think it brings about healthy opportunities for discussion about the justice system, this was another plot line that I did not feel ultimately served the larger film.
All these concurrent plot lines are brought together in Breivik’s trial. It is here where Breivik is given an opportunity to state his case, and it is here were Viljar sits as a witness against Breivik in the film’s most moving scene. We have watched as Viljar has worked for this moment. The way he rises to it is quite moving, indeed.
At the end of the day, I believe films like 22 July are vitally important. When we come into contact with such large-scale traumas, we must have large-scale ways to consider and deal with them. Will a film ever be able to serve as a complete salve for such situations? Will it ever offer a way to fully wrestle with the pain and loss? No, of course not. Because of that, I can certainly see why some would say that such films are unnecessary. I would disagree, but I have not been as close to such situations as others. I lived through 9/11, but there will certainly be some for whom the trauma is too visceral to watch a film like this. That is understandable.
For me? I applaud the attempt made by Mr. Greengrass here to provide not only an opportunity to wrestle with this specific attack, but also to wrestle with the larger cultural shifts that it represents. I think the film would have been stronger if he let the courtroom finale be the main way he inserted the larger cultural discussion, but he has created a strong film nonetheless.
This is a hard film, and one that will clearly not be for everyone. At the same time, it is important viewing. We need ways to process difficult events on a cultural scale. Cinema may not ever be able to fully provide that for events such as this, but I think it should still try anyways.
Overall Grade: B