The films of British writer-director Paul Greengrass exist in two realms: the fantasy of the Jason Bourne films and the reality of true-life horrors rooted in international socio-political policy. The latter series of movies began with Bloody Sunday (2002), about the massacre by British troops of Irish protesters fighting for civil rights on Jan. 30, 1972. Then, in 2006, he took on the heroes of United 93, some protested, too soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. It remains his most harrowing entry of these films. Green Zone (2010), starring his Bourne actor Matt Damon, came next. Though the story was a fiction, it was based on a book that took a critical look at the effects of the American presence in Iraq after the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Most, however, will remember his most critically and popularly received of these movies, Captain Phillips (2013), where Tom Hanks played Captain Richard Phillips, who survived a hijacking of his cargo ship at sea by Somali pirates.
So in this oeuvre of real-life thrillers, where does Greengrass’ latest, 22 July, fall? For one, he is back to writing his own script, something he hasn’t done since United 93, which remains the most nerve-wracking of his films. This new film, where gun violence and white nationalist extremism come to roost in Norway, however, is not nearly as intense. Considering what happened that day, it’s a bit of a relief and a choice that may have been made because of the United 93 criticism. It would have been in poor taste to dwell on the slaughter committed by Anders Behring Breivik (a steely Anders Danielsen Lie). With a bomb and assault rifles, Breivik took out 77 unarmed people on July 22, 2011 in Oslo, Norway. There’s a sense in the film to hurry away from the massacre and focus on something more complex: what came after Breivik surrendered to police.
Greengrass works with Norwegian DP Pål Ulvik Rokseth for the first time in a film featuring an all Norwegian cast, who speak English in a movie made for an international audience. Beyond the marketing potential, this kind of violence and nationalist terrorism has, after all, become an international problem. Rokseth’s handheld camera keeps the violence at a distance with shots that never linger gratuitously, except for when it needs to establish a key survivor in the tragedy, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli). Though 22 July opens with a disturbing episode, it dwells on questions of what might be next for a nation where, as the film establishes early on, its prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), was accustomed to one-hour national security briefings he could take in his hotel room.
In the U.S., the news media covered plenty of the horror that happened that day and its immediate aftermath, but basing his script on the book by Åsne Seierstad, Greengrass dives deeper. His concerns lie in the dangers of nationalism based on racism and how members of society can hold on to hope by hanging on to moral convictions in the face of monstrous actions. After cornering children in a classroom and calling them elitists who must die for their “Marxist” beliefs, Anders unleashes an assault rifle on them. They were part of a summer camp of the Workers’ Youth League, which is affiliated with the Norwegian Labour Party, the party to which their P.M. at the time belongs. Though Anders double tapped many of the deceased or injured with headshots, Breivik left Viljar nearly paralyzed, as he was shot at a distant range tried to stay motionless. The news reports in the film note as many as 200 were injured. Viljar, played with charm and conviction by Gravli in his first major feature, carries much of the film’s moral drama, as he wavers from wrathful to achieving a state of stoicism in the best sense.
Meanwhile, Anders hires a defense lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who he thinks might be sympathetic to his mission as a “commander of the Knights Templar.” After all, Geir once defended neo-nazis, a case Anders followed before his lone wolf attack. However, Geir is a member of the labor party but feels duty-bound to follow through with his client’s request despite anger from outside that finds a way to penetrate his home. This is yet another depiction of decorum in the face of barbarity that the film touches on. Greengrass wants to show what it means to push through with a system of civility that does not include more violence. During his immediate questioning, Anders seems to hijack this notion by calmly requesting medical aid for a flesh wound on his knuckle for fear that a piece of someone’s skull may have infected it, police comply. After a band aid is applied, he gets pizza and wine, as the questioning continues. This all adds to the moral quandary Greengrass is presenting the viewer to consider.
With a distance from the proceedings that never succumbs to melodrama and featuring a spare, hardly present ambient score by Danish composer Sune Martin, Greengrass once again presents a film fueled by an inherent horror that’s very real to our society and international concerns. It’s not incredibly entertaining, but why should it be? There’s a balance of conscience for the lives lost that respects their sacrifices so that maybe those who are gifted with continued existence in this world might learn from it. Greengrass harnesses the power of cinematic storytelling to maintain a, for the most part, thrilling pace. However, the bigger picture is what you take away from this experience. There isn’t a director who takes on such disturbing topics and balances the cruelty of our modern world with such dignity and grace.
22 July runs 143 minutes and is rated R. It opens theatrically in our Miami area exclusively at the Landmark at Merrick Park Wednesday, Oct. 10. It is also now streaming in three parts on Netflix, who invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. To read about theatrical screenings in other parts of the U.S., we recommend you check out this article by Variety.