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.
My Take – It’s a distressing fact that while the world remains focused on what kind of terror attacks America and its citizens have to deal with, for some reason dreadful attacks in other parts of the world go shamefully unnoticed. One of those attacks include the Norwegian attack on the July 22nd, 2011, which saw a 32-year old madman known as Anders Behring Breivik carry out multiple attacks, leading to a death toll of 77 people while leaving more than 300 injured physically and emotionally.
Now, seven years later, in this film, writer/director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips) dramatizes not just the attacks, but also the aftermath and its impact on the survivors and the country, which rightfully called for Breivik’s head. Thankfully, in the hands of a master filmmaker behind a film like 2006’s United 93, who knows this terrain perhaps better than anyone, the event and the subsequent effects gets treated with utmost care and respect.
Yes, the film is heavy, grim and shocking, but also quite moving at the same time. What makes it better than many documentaries is that it shows the attacks for what they were: politically motivated right wing acts of terror, and the creators were not afraid to show Breivik’s murderous hatred for multiculturalism in the film. One of my main worries going into this Netflix released film was that the Norwegian-English dialect would distract me throughout the entire film, but I quickly forgot about this a couple of minutes in due to the strong performances, particularly from Anders Danielsen Lie who portrayed mass murderer Breivik. On every note this is not an easy film to watch but it’s definitely one you should consider giving your time to.
Based on the book One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad, the story follows Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who along with his younger brother, Torje Hanssen (Isak Bakli Aglen), and some friends including Lara Rashid (Seda Witt), check into a storming a summer camp, organized by the youth division of the Norwegian Labour Party on Utøya, a small island visible off the coast. Totally unaware what life has in store for them, as on July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), a Norwegian far-right extremist, who counted himself as a member of the white supremacist movement known as the Knights Templar, build a homemade bomb and detonated it outside the offices of prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others.
Then, drove 40 kilometers outside of the city to Utøya, posed as a police officer, took the ferry to the island and proceeded with gunning down almost everyone from instructors to teenagers including Viljar and his close friends, with a semi-automatic rifle. And eventually ended up surrendered to the police once they arrived. With the incident shocking a peaceful nation to its core, a committee begins to question the prime minister on what they should or could have been done to have prevented such a massacre, as attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who Anders selected to represent him, is dealing with his own moral dilemma as death threats against him and his family keep pouring in. All the while, as Viljar, who was shot five times and now lives on with a scarred body, residual bullet fragments in his head, and loss of one of his eyes, must cope with his survival, clearly stating a fact that while the shooting may have only lasted a few hours, but its ramifications will billow out for decades to come.
Terror attacks are extremely difficult to render on film, and if you step one inch in the wrong direction and it risks becoming exploitative entertainment. How do you authentically capture the fear and trauma of victims and survivors without cheapening it, or extending their pain? Well director Greengrass knows how. While the first 20-30 minutes of this film will disqualify many viewers, as we are shown how children are senselessly massacred as their parents react helplessly faraway, the director does not use the violence gratuitously, nor does he shy away from the events. His film shows the fear and chaos in straightforward terms and the traumatic reactions of the Norwegian people afterwards. It breaks your heart.
Thankfully, director Greengrass wisely dials down on any physical violence, choosing instead to linger on Breivik’s methodical, unflinching process and the horrifying anxiety felt by those in his cross hairs. It’s very, very hard to watch, but also essential to his telling. Renowned for his handheld shaky-cam filming, here, his gritty style suits the intensity and chaos of following those kids as they run for cover while Breivik taunts them for being Marxists, liberals and members of the elite. The fear and disorientation of the film’s first act then ripples throughout the rest of the film, as director Greengrass digs into Breivik’s inability to view people beyond politics, and the ways in which this kind of attack can dismantle a democracy. The film builds upon the effects of the tragic events by giving each character an arc that all come together in the end.
The screenplay here is also epic in scope as he tells his tale incorporating nearly every story threads of the event: massacre, the trial, the hardships faced by one victim, and the political mishandling of the investigation. He also tries to depict the warped mind of the terrorist and his vicious plan fueled by Marxist and Neo-Nazi rhetoric and class war hatred. While it may seem like the attack would be the most visceral part, the rest of the film has the same heaviness and devastating air — the rehabilitation of survivors, whose agony extends far beyond the island, and the potentially socially damaging public trial, during which Breivik demands he be heard. Two moments, in particular, stand out. Early in his attack on the island, Breivik calmly tells a room full of campers they are going to die. Later, when given the chance to speak in court, Breivik begins with a Nazi salute. Both moments land like a gut punch thanks to Lie’s work.
Breivik also handpicks defense attorney Geir Lippestad to represent him at trial. Lippestad’s balance between an occupational sense of duty and disgust with his client is compelling. And yet, director Greengrass manages to avoid turning the film into an utterly dire, hopeless watch. It’s devastating, to be sure, but not defeatist. There is a way forward, director Greengrass argues. The beating heart of the film is in the survivors, especially a bright-eyed 18-year-old named Viljar Hanssen, who along with all the bodily injuries also loses something else—his optimism, his will to do good, to keep dreaming. With the help of his friends and family, he is eventually able to confront the man who tried to kill him, who succeeded in killing so many others. And that’s when Viljar looks across the court room at Breivik and realizes that losing his will is exactly what the terrorist wants.
Here, director Greengrass presents something of a battle between Hanssen and his assailant for whose story is more important. Then there is Geir Lippestad one of the most interesting character in the film. Seeing him represent the reprehensible Breivik to the fullest extent is intriguing to watch—especially since he completely disagrees with Breivik’s actions. However, it’s his job as a lawyer to represent him because it’s his job. As a result, you both hate and respect him at the same time. But it’s clear about halfway through the film why it needed to be an English: the film isn’t only about a terrorist attack in Norway seven years ago. It’s about the entire world, right now, and it’s a film that demands to be seen in several English-speaking countries that, in recent years, have shown themselves to be extremely susceptible to certain fundamentals of Breivik’s hateful worldview.
Of course with a run time of 143 minutes, the film does notable dip in pace especially in the second half, as it introduces some story lines that never really go anywhere. Since the film moves from one story line to the other a lot, you may find yourself distracted at certain points. That said, director Greengrass does manage to get some incredible performances out of his leads. Led by Jonas Strand Gravli, who provides an extraordinary performance as Viljar. He is the easily the heart and soul of the film. Not only does he give such a physical performance but he gives an emotional one too. It’s the kind of performance that’ll inspire and lift your spirits too.
Andres Danielson Lie portrays the terrorist as a calm but deranged sociopath, and his choice to play his character as smug, arrogant, and completely unsympathetic, makes it all the more chilling. Jon Øigarden puts up a solid act too. In supporting roles, Ola G. Furuseth, Seda Witt, Thorbjørn Harr, Isak Bakli Aglen, and Maria Bock manage to leave a mark. On the whole, ’22 July’ is a thoughtful, gripping character and historical drama that uses its extraordinary cast to bring an incredibly inspiring story about the worst terrorist attack in Norway’s history.
Directed – Paul Greengrass
Rated – R
Run Time – 143 minutes