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Director Paul Greengrass is one of the most active and visceral directors of this or any era. Though his films are rarely box office successes, his style feels more alive and vigorous than any ten blockbusters on the market. His latest film, 22 July, made for Netflix, is yet another true life, documentary style, take on the ongoing war on terror. This time Greengrass takes us inside Norway’s worst nightmare with a similarly ultra-realistic approach that he brought to 9/11 in United 93 and Iraq in Green Zone.
22 July tells the story of the worst terror attack in Norway’s history. On July 22nd, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik a right wing ultra-nationalist built a massive bomb inside of a van and used it to attack one of Norway’s major government buildings. While police responded to that attack, Breivik traveled to the small island of Utoya where teenagers were gathered for the chance to meet the Prime Minister of Norway.
Here we meet Viljar (Jonas Strand) a promising young man with a bright future. Viljar appears to be liked by everyone and adored by his younger brother, Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen). When Breivik arrived and began his killing spree, Viljar led a group that ran for some nearby cliffs and hid there for as long as they could before Breivik found them and the shooting began again. Viljar is stuck in the head, shoulder and leg.
Viljar will be among those who survive this attack. Police response time is slow however and in the end Breivik murders 69 people on the island and 8 more in his bomb attack in Oslo. The film then follows along after Breivik is captured and carries forward the dual stories of Viljar’s slow road to recovery and the trial of Anders Behring Breivik who is given chilling life by actor Anders Danielsen Lie.
22 July was filmed in Greengrass’s preferred handheld style which lends the film the documentary feel that Greengrass enjoys. It’s a style that not a lot of directors can pull off without getting sloppy, whipsawing the camera around or failing to frame scenes properly. Greengrass’s skillful employment of the handheld camera is a signature that he shares with few other directors.
It’s the kind of style that makes his depictions of true life events both riveting and unnerving, almost hard to watch. The realism of the attack scene, with Lie’s breathtaking performance, is remarkably powerful. The attack is all encompassingly bleak and terrifying. The icy cold way in which Breivik talks his way onto the island and then begins executing people while barely changing his facial expression is stomach turning stuff.
22 July does strike a few false notes as it drags on past when the movie should have ended, with the testimony of Viljar. Specifically, a scene featuring the Prime Minister of Norway, well portrayed by Ola G. Furaseth, is probably not necessary and adds one note of seeming falseness to the narrative. The scene might be based in reality but it doesn’t carry a ring of truth on screen but rather the hollow din of politics.
22 July is not an easy watch. Like Greengrass’s United 93, it captures a moment in world history in the most visceral and gut wrenching fashion. I have a distinctly surreal memory of being at the theater having already seen United 93 alone at a critics only screening. Knowing what the theatergoers were headed into I was struck with how bizarre it seemed for people to be gathering snacks before going to watch a flawless recreation of the single worst moment in American history.
I imagine folks from Norway will have a similarly surreal moment when they see this film which feels like you are watching a war documentary as the war was taking place. You feel as if you are in that forest on that island, desperately clinging to those cliffs until you are actually able to make eye contact with the monster who is yelling that he’s there to kill you. The kinetic, electric hot fear of that moment feels all too real at times in 22 July so be forewarned. The film packs a serious physical and emotional wallop.