There are few directors as skilled at telling modern tragedies as Paul Greengrass. The director continues to retell tragedies as humanistic moments of triumph. While many know Greengrass for the “Bourne” franchise, his work on “United 93” and “Captain Phillips” still loom large. This time, he journies into northern Europe to examine the tragic events of “22 July” in Oslo, Norway. The attack from an alt-right fundamentalist left Europe questioning the right, but it also brought strength to progressive movements in some countries. Now Greengrass’ film takes on a very strong resonance in America today, as various groups considered part of the alt-right continues to rise around the world.
“22 July” follows a few different storylines, but the two most integral to the film are those of Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) and Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Breivik is an alt-right nationalist, offended by the increased numbers of immigrants in Norway. He plans a two-fold attack, believing himself to be the first soldier to rise up against left-wing socialists. First, he bombs a government building in Oslo, planning to kill the Prime Minister. He then drives to a nearby camp used to help develop future leaders in the country. He arrives at the island and massacres children. Between the two attacks, 77 are killed, including 68 children. Among the over 200 injured is Viljar, a popular young boy at the camp, who receives 4 gunshot wounds to his arms, his leg, with one bullet lodged in his brain.
Greengrass drops us straight onto July 21st, juxtaposing Breivik’s last-minute preparations with children arriving at the camp and remeeting their friends. These moments are important and bring the children to life in a naturalistic and dramatic fashion. The audience knows what will happen to these children and the trauma that will change their lives forever. Yet for one minute, we can draw parallels to these fleeting moments of childhood before everything changes. Greengrass manipulates his audience, but it is necessary to drive home to the point of the film.
The attack itself is stunningly tough to watch. In my screening, people shuddered and cried. It might be among the toughest sequences to watch in modern filmmaking, likely since “We Need to Talk About Kevin” from 2011. The makeup effects instantly bring the carnage to light. The camera movements, sound work, and editing place you in the shoes of the children sprinting for survival. The bombing is just as harrowing, and as the characters begin to realize the 2nd attack is underway, the look of true fear and panic sweeps over the film.
After the first 45 minutes to an hour, the shooting has ceased we’re treated to a different kind of film. Police detain Breivik and the medical teams fight to save lives. We’ve split into two separate paths again, one where Breivik and his lawyers go through the court system and one where Hanssen begins the road to recovery. These sequences are where the film’s length is felt, yet the editing of the story keeps it relatively well-paced. One could almost justify splitting the film into two different movies had there been more time spent on the first half of the story.
Gravli shines throughout the film as Hanssen fights for survival. Even as he survives multiple surgeries, his road through physical therapy makes for a tough watch. He does not know how to make his life normal again, and the depression and PTSD are real. His younger brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen) also suffers from PTSD, but because he was uninjured his parents do not check in on him the same way. The films acknowledgment of this occurrence makes for a very strong narrative, bringing two brothers closer together despite moments where Torje feels isolated and alone.
Gravli’s highlight really comes in the last testimony of the trial, a moment we’ve been building to for hours. However, the long build also makes it feel a bit flat after the hype surrounding the scene. It’s not Gravli’s fault, he knocks it out of the park. In this case, the editor and Greengrass deserve blame for making us wait for the moment.
Gravli also plays well off his parents, Thorbjørn Harr and Maria Bock. Both Bock and Harr should get credit for their work as well. They ground us in the shock and helplessness of the situation both during and after the shooting. Bock showcases a stronger mother, while Harr’s emotional beats will break you on occasion. Bock’s tie to the government (she’s running for mayor) helps remind audiences that the world kept moving after the shooting, even if the event disrupts the lives of those attacked.
Meanwhile, the Breivik storyline embraces the evil of a man responsible killing 68 children. Lie does well to bring small ticks into the character that feel extremely discomforting to watch. His smile shines through various moments, taunting the audience and characters on screen. One moment, in particular, will make you squirm as he asks for medical attention for a cut on his finger, caused by a loose piece of skull hitting his finger. Lie brings moments out in “22 July” that are simply chilling, making you question why you even began the movie in the first place.
The unknown cast does well in their roles, making “22 July” feel like a pseudo-documentary instead of a narrative feature. This showcases Greengrass as a director, who expertly gets what he needs out of each member of the sprawling cast. Another young actress Greengrass gets a lot out of is Seda Witt. She plays the pseudo-love interest for Gravli until the attacks occur. She’s then given a tough arc, one of the survivors trying to cheerlead others to recover. Meanwhile, she mourns her own loss of her sister. She’s the face of immigration in this film and shoulders the burden with some emotionally rewarding, if not subtle, moments.
The other problem the film suffers from is the long run time. Ultimately, 150 minutes of backbreaking tragedy is really tough to get around. There are some light and cute moments throughout, especially between Hanssen and the girl he clearly has a thing for before and after the tragedy. Still, it’s a long film, and audiences will likely think that it drags in the middle. The expansive plotline to see the government response informs the audience how a functional body would deal with tragedies like this. However, for the purposes of the film, it bloats the total runtime with little payoff.
Ultimately, “22 July” shines in some moments, while other parts of the film drag. The first act regarding the attack and the immediate aftermath feel as essential and riveting as only Greengrass can. However, the middle section of the film buckles a little under the weight of the long runtime. At 2 hours, this film legitimately could have made a push for best picture. Still, “22 July” feels prescient to America in 2018.