FilmSpace: 22 July

Ben Wray

Film critic Scott Wilson reviews 22 July, Paul Greengrass’ take on Norwegian white supremacist Anders Breivik’s massacre of 77 people in 2011 and its aftermath

22 July – ★★★★☆

For a storyteller like Paul Greengrass, it’s important his work is seen by as many people as possible. That’s why, last week, 22 July was released in cinemas and on Netflix at the same time. Having dramatised real-life stories in Captain Philips and United 93, 22 July continues the former journalist’s trend of turning pain and perseverance into cinema.

The attacks on Norway by Anders Breivik still feel fresh even in a news cycle with weekly amnesia. Seven years on, the world is struggling to cope with extremism across the political and religious spectrums. Breivik’s attack, with hindsight, felt like the start of something we have yet to comprehend.

Which explains 22 July’s two-and-a-half hours run time. Greengrass is not in the business of patronising audiences, and for such a grave subject, he balances patience and outrage meticulously.

Its opening forty minutes deal with Breivik’s attacks on Oslo and Utøya. A politically motivated act, he targeted a youth Labour camp attended by teenagers who would go on to become the country’s main political players. They held meetings under a banner with ‘for the many, not the few’ in bold letters. As protagonist Viljar makes a speech about uniting Europe through a positive case for immigration, the film cuts to Breivik’s ‘declaration for Europe,’ legitimising his point of view while vilifying it at the same time.

The film doesn’t shy away from his stalking of the island, surrounded by young people lying dead around him. In order to deal with what happened, we must first accept what happened. It is harrowing, but not exploitative.

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Breaking into a cabin where kids are sheltering, he says: “You will die today. Marxists, liberals, members of the elite.” These words have become semantically bleached terms, no longer understood as ideologies as much as words to denote extreme opposition to far-right conservatism. With gun in hand, towering over vulnerable youth, their sinister intent is made all the more clear.

But the film is more than the day of 22 July, and is as much about how Norway recovers. Breivik is adamant he has attacked the nation as a whole, requesting to negotiate terms that include a complete ban on immigration and an end to “enforced multiculturalism,” saying the attacks will continue if he is not listened to. His language is loaded with familiar political euphemisms, with “take back control of Norway” echoing rhetoric from the Brexit campaign.

How 22 July differs from, say, Bodyguard, in which extremism was used solely as a means of entertainment, is in its determination to tell a success story. It believes Norway triumphed in its response to Breivik through consideration of the law and without suppressing his rights, even if many would see them taken from him. It turns from a horror film to a procedural, with the socially scary question of whether Breivik or Norway is on trial. There is a real worry the latter will find motivation, validation, through his actions. Would the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville have happened without Trump in the White House?

Breivik’s mother asks his lawyer: “He’s kind of right though, isn’t he? The way the world is going. It’s not like it used to be.” Films of this sort can get bogged down by the event itself, when the aftermath is the more telling story. Nordic films have hinted at a simmering neo-nazi movement for a while, including David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Just like Trump is a symptom and not the problem, Breivik’s terror is in his insistence he is not alone.

“How 22 July differs from, say, Bodyguard, in which extremism was used solely as a means of entertainment, is in its determination to tell a success story.”

It’s the institutions that bring comfort. The hospitals work their magic; the lawyers promote a proper process by upholding laws and rights; the politicians lead, with Norway’s Prime Minister restoring peace saying: “We will fight this terror with the rule of law, not the barrel of the gun” while a country mourns. He orders an enquiry – “We need to find out what went wrong, it’s the only way we will get through this” – and in doing so puts the country and its people before him. It’s a humble introspection that recognises his duty to lead while placing his ego entirely to the side. I found this a little hard to imagine in 2018, but by showing the PM act this way, Greengrass is calling for a responsible maturity in our elected officials.

Which is the film’s success. Norway is shown to navigate something unspeakable through level headed leadership, determination, and love. There’s a respect for how things should be even when fighting something that should not. Greengrass is saying the world is still hurting because we are acting improperly – Brexit was caused by an internal party struggle driven by narcissism, for crying out loud.

And tellingly, he never shies away from validating Breivik as a person. He is not a monster, and plenty of his beliefs have become mainstream in the intervening years. He is not dismissed nor made a mockery of. Greengrass finds solace in our leading by example in the face of terrorism. It’s something the west hasn’t come to terms with: people react against Trump, not set a new agenda; Brexit was dominated by a regressive and heated immigration debate, not a holistic and mature conversation; UKIP stole the microphone from parties who were more concerned with playing catch up than championing a better alternative.

So in 22 July’s lowest moments, the hope is in rebuilding. It can feel hopeless watching an endless news cycle of not only extremism, but idiocy in response to it too. Greengrass wants his film to be seen by as many people as possible because he thinks we can make it through this.