Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Premise: A dramatization of Norway’s worst terrorist attack. In 2011, a right wing extremist destroyed a public building and gunned down teenagers and staff at a summer camp. The survivors cope with the aftermath and the government puts the assailant on trial.
What Works: 22 July is distinguished within the genre of terrorism dramas. A lot of these films, such as Patriot’s Day and Hotel Mumbai, focus on the attack itself and place the viewer in the terror of the moment. Although they may have a political angle, most of these films are primal survival stories. 22 July is a structured differently. The story unfolds in three parts. The first section dramatizes the attack in which right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) destroyed a government building with a car bomb and then shot up the guests and staff of a summer camp. This sequence is brutal in its realism. Filmmaker Paul Greengrass previously directed United 93 and like that film he applies a cinema verite style that puts the audience in the midst of the action and avoids overly cinematic intrusions like dramatic music or rapid editing. After the siege, the film focuses on the aftermath for the survivors of the attack, in particular Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager who was seriously wounded and must go through physical and psychological therapy. This section is also grueling but in a different way from the attack. The survivors cope with their grief and adjust to the new sense of reality in the wake of so much trauma. The third phase of 22 July is a courtroom drama which brings Breivik and Hanssen face to face. This narrative structure allows the filmmakers to create a more complex portrait of terrorism than just the carnage. Crimes such as the 2011 Norway attack are ideological in their nature; the assailant uses violence to advance a political agenda. In a lot of other films the ideology is lost or dealt with insubstantially. 22 July puts that ideology front and center and the second and third sections of the story are about how Breivik attempted to control the discourse through his legal defense and turn the trial into political theater. This film is also about cultural values, in particular pluralistic democratic values, and the way attacks like the one in 22 July are an assault on a free and open society. This is dramatized effectively through the character of Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), the defense lawyer who represented Breivik. As portrayed in the film, Lippestad did not share his client’s convictions but he did assume the responsibility to represent Breivik despite the case coming with a great deal of grief from both his client and outraged Norwegian citizens. 22 July takes us through this story in a way that is smart and thoughtful while never straying too far from the human drama.
What Doesn’t: Like a lot of movies of this sort, 22 July is grueling viewing. It is ultimately more optimistic than a lot of similar films, owing to the way its story takes the viewer through the rehabilitation of the survivors and the trial of the perpetrator. There is a cogent criticism of the film and its depiction of Anders Behring Breivik and that’s how 22 July centers upon the killer. According to this line of critique, featuring Breivik and his ideology so prominently elevates them even if that’s unintentional. That argument carries some extra urgency since Breivik’s crimes were the inspiration for the 2019 mass shooting in New Zealand. However, 22 July does not glorify Breivik or his crimes and his presence in the film is in opposition to Viljar Hanssen and Geir Lippestad who represent civil society. The movie is ultimately about the conflict between those values and visions of the world.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: 22 July is a sophisticated dramatization of terrorism and its aftermath. The film is not easy to watch but there is a humanity that informs its approach to the subject matter. That and the filmmaker’s intelligent approach to the material distinguish 22 July from similar films.
Episode: #744 (April 7, 2019)