Review: '22 July', Paul Greengrass' Visceral But Uneven Look At A Norwegian Massacre

Nobody makes heart-pounding, gut-wrenching dramas that you never want to watch twice quite like Paul Greengrass. While his Bourne movies are an obvious exception, Greengrass' fact-based projects are often nightmarish accounts of horrific tragedies. His latest, 22 July, is another visceral, terrifying experience that recounts a devastating terrorist attack, this one the July 22nd Norway assault by Anders Behring Breivik that left 78 people dead and more than 300 injured.

As with United 93, Captain Phillips, and Bloody Sunday, Greengrass shows a fierce commitment to authenticity that is appreciated, but also makes his movies tough to endure. For anyone who remembers the 9/11 attacks it's doubtful you've had the urge to pop United 93 into the Bluray player. The opening act of 22 July creates an atmosphere of chaos and tragedy that is tough to shake. The attacks by Breivik (played with Lecter-eque intensity by Anders Danielsen Lie) were meticulous in their precision. It began with a bomb planted near the offices of the prime minister, killing 8 and injuring more than 200. This was his opening shot against the government, but also a means of distraction. While first responders arrived Breivik sped over to the island of Utoya, posing as a police officer sent to protect the occupants, a group of kids attending a summer youth camp. Breivik opened fire on them, killing 69 while chasing them all around the island shouting insults about their status as liberal elites.

The attack itself is brutal, unflinching, just as we expect from Greengrass. It will be especially jarring for anyone who has seen our news and the many shootings of our school-aged children. But also Breivik's rhetoric is scarily familiar to some of the extremists who act as talking heads on cable news and talk radio. The hatred Breivik has for these kids he doesn't even know, simply because of a presumed ideology, is palpable. A few of the victims are singled out as characters to follow, in particular the popular future politician Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravlik) and his little brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen). When the bombing occurs it's them, along with others on the island, who called to their parents to make sure they were okay. But within moments it's the kids themselves who find themselves in danger from Breivik's assault. While Torje escapes with only emotional wounds, Viljar is shot five times and barely survives.

The vast majority of the film deals with the aftermath, as a captured Breivik starts making demands in hopes of spreading his manifesto to the world. Greengrass attempts to match the severity of the attack with an all-encompassing look at the people affected by it, but nothing he does shows the same level of depth. Mostly we follow Viljar as he tries to recover from his injuries and reclaim the hopefulness Breivik stole from him. In stark contrast to the other movie released this year on the same subject, Erik Poppe's U-July 22, Greengrass doesn't want the focus to solely be on the loss of life. He makes an attempt to understand it, and to offer the real-life victims a voice in opposition to Breivik's hatred. That's definitely commendable, and Viljar's journey to an inevitable confrontation with Breivik is inspiring in spurts. But so many other storylines are glossed over, like that of Breivik's court-mandated attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Ă˜igarden), who is torn over disgust for his client and his belief that everyone deserves a credible defense. Lippestad's family received threats over his defense of Breivik, but that is a plot point barely discussed. Greengrass also shows us the political response to the attack as prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) copes with the fallout from a lapse in national security, and the rise of far-right extremism.

Greengrass took a similarly expansive approach with United 93 but that was in capturing the chaotic response in real-time, while 22 July is about people and their response to trauma. By dividing his attentions to such a degree, Greengrass limits the emotional resonance of the survivors he wishes to celebrate, and clouds the film's strongest message. We are seeing fear and hatred spread across the world because of monsters like Breivik and others who think like him, and it's important to stand up to these people; to show them that they can't win.

Rating: 3 out of 5