'22 July' Review: Paul Greengrass Tackles a Different Kind of Terrorism
Filmmaker Paul Greengrass gets most of his credit for visual innovations behind the camera. It’s his work on the Bourne series that film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum chose as an exemplar of a dominant style in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, “intensified continuity,” an aesthetic that prioritizes visceral shocks over all story, logic or character matters. But that style’s association with his name masks Greengrass’ pattern of tackling sensitive political issues, a thematic connection that endures whether or not he wrote the script. All his post-9/11 work engages deeply with the world left in its wake – the very root of the War on Terror in United 93, the lingering effects of post colonialism in Captain Phillips – and the institutions calling the shots – the surveillance state in the Bourne series, the military-industrial complex in Green Zone.
22 July, the latest Greengrass project, moves away from an American-centered focus to examine a recent incident of far-right extremism in Norway. But if anyone believes the change of setting exculpates them from listening and heeding the warning, think again. Greengrass offers a thoughtful, terrifying portrait of how white nationalist hatred seeks to subvert the values of liberalism to validate its own existence.
The film begins hauntingly with a tick-tock of the harrowing events of July 22, 2011, when homegrown lone wolf terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie, a familiar face to fans of director Joachim Trier) took 77 lives in Norway. His day of terror began with setting off a bomb outside a government building in the capital city of Oslo. And, in case that was not enough, he set off on the road to Utøya Island where many public officials sent their children to summer camp. These are the future leaders of Norway engaged in intellectual exercises like “if I were Prime Minister,” but to Breivik, they are just “Marxists” and “liberal elites.” Breivik treats their wooded retreat like target practice, picking off 69 people with an assault rifle before surrendering peacefully to the police.
Rather than milking easy tragedy out of the events, Greengrass keeps his distance. That does not mean he shies away from the depravity – from a chilling wide shot, he shows Breivik unloading bullets at point blank range into the heads of his victims. The director, clearly a systems thinker, shows he’s a keen observer of methods. In 22 July, people can use process as a means to take lives like Breivik on the island as well as to save lives like the medics who rescue the survivors. (As a side note, Greengrass portrays the step-by-step methodology of treating a gunshot wound with such precision that it feels like he might quiz us on how to do it ourselves after the scene is finished.)
The contrast between the horror and the hopefulness of highly routinized individuals sets up the rest of the film quite nicely. Thankfully, Greengrass does not build sadistically towards the massacre and exploit its impending arrival as a form of dramatic irony. The titular events of 22 July conclude in the first act, leaving a whole lot of movie left to grapple with the fallout.
The film forks off in three different directions after Breivik discharges his final bullet. First, it tracks the governmental response to an incident that caught them off-guard and unprepared. While an important component of what comes after any disaster, this section of 22 July is woefully underdeveloped and struggles to make the Prime Minister into anything resembling a real character. (Admittedly, this is tough for an event that happened under a decade ago.) Second, it follows the recovery of survivors, particular the teenage Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) as he rehabilitates following debilitating injuries that left him hanging on the precipice of death. Gravli makes an impressively soulful feature film debut, but the film does not give him anything out of the ordinary to do with regards to PTSD.
Viljar’s main motivation to recover comes from the potential for a face-off with Breivik in court, where he hopes to appear at full strength to show that his attacker could never defeat him. This actually happened, sure, but it would feel like a painful movie cliché if Greengrass did not spend the bulk of 22 July portraying the loathsome, warped mind of Breivik. The third section of the film follows the terrorist’s ghastly attempts to use a public trial to disseminate his hate-filled manifesto into the public consciousness. With the help of a shady lawyer, Breivik attempts to move the Overton window on white nationalism by putting Norway and its multicultural policies on trial instead of himself.
In these procedural sections of the film, 22 July shows the danger of supremacist ideology even when its adherents do not pick up a weapon. In bad faith, these zealots twist the free market of ideas to peddle their broadsides against minority populations and attempt to make reasonable people debate long-settled notions of personhood and equality. It’s a testament to Greengrass’ versatility as a filmmaker that he can make the diatribes against diversity land with the same guttural impact as a car collision or a death-defying stunt.
/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10
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