’22 July’ Review: A Difficult Movie for Difficult Times

The latest true-tragedy thriller from Paul Greengrass balances the aftermath of the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks.
By  · Published on October 12th, 2018

The man who killed 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011 — eight of them in a bombing of Oslo’s government quarter and then 69 during a massacre at a political youth camp on Utøya island — is a psychopath. At least that’s how he’s portrayed in 22 July, Paul Greengrass‘ latest thriller recreating a real-life tragedy. The man is charismatic and conniving, and it’s especially difficult to ignore him as a compelling figure in the performance of Anders Danielsen Lie, possibly the only familiar actor in the movie to American audiences, thanks to his leading role in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, 31 August. For the viewer of 22 July, there’s a struggle not to be taken in with this lone terrorist. After all, villains sure are intriguing.

Greengrass isn’t as interested in why someone committed such horrendous acts on the eponymous date, which many call Norway’s 9/11. The film begins briskly with the bombing and mass shooting rather than leading up to the incidents, which would spectacularize them. Anyone expecting a docudrama film that sticks to the main events, as is the case with Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, Captain Phillips, and his 9/11 feature United 93, will be surprised. But 22 July is based on Åsne Seierstad’s book “One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — And Its Aftermath,” and the latter part of that subtitle is where most of the film is concerned. With the terrorist’s trial on one hand and a single survivor’s recovery and rehabilitation on the other.

The days and months and years following a tragedy can be far more interesting than attempts to understand what caused it. As with the recent drama Stronger, which depicts a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing as he copes with the loss of his legs and so much more, and this year’s three-part documentary November 13 (like 22 July, a Netflix release), focused on the testimonials of survivors of Paris’ November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks (which many call France’s 9/11), Greengrass’ film deals with the further tribulations of those who remain, whether it’s then-Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) working out what should or could have been done, or attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) contending with his decision to defend the terrorist and the death threats that come with it, or of course, more directly the young woman (Seda Witt) who was on Utøya during the shooting and lost her sister to the gunman, or Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who was shot five times and lives on with a scarred body, residual bullet fragments in his head, and the loss of one of his eyes.

Hanssen is the rightful hero of 22 July, yet we’ve seen the recuperating victim story countless times and there’s more here than the dramatization of his pains, including some unnecessary and rather hokey flashback nightmares and occasional audio samples of the shooting emphasizing the way the incident haunts the character. Greengrass presents something of a battle between Hanssen and his assailant for whose story is more important. The controversy of the trial, in which the terrorist was allowed to explain his motive for the attacks, is given a lot of screen time, and while the film, as adapted by Greengrass himself, doesn’t give the figure much biographical treatment compared to the immediate focus of Seierstad’s book, simply offering him a cinematic legacy can be seen as already too much attention. The terrorist does come off as having won something.

There’s no denying the stuff of his trial, how he manipulates his lawyer and the court by agreeing to an insanity plea and then changing his mind to take full conscious responsibility for the events in order to (legally) prove his actions as rational, is as scary as the dramatization of his attacks. As he says, the trial is his third attack. Implicating a judicial system and hinting at media sensationalism as complicit in feeding psychopaths’ egos and fame certainly hits home in the US, though the terrorist’s end game, whether he winds up in prison or a psychiatric facility — not to mention the question of whether psychopathy counts as mental illness — is never clear. If it’s merely to get his name out there and maybe influence others, again, he’s succeeded.

But we don’t want to recognize him as a martyr any more than we should want to treat him or any of history’s villains as a “monster.” It’s difficult when, seven years later, the seemingly solitary right-wing extremist who caused direct physical harm to hundreds, and emotional and psychological effects to at least thousands more, doesn’t seem so isolated in his views or what someone is capable of doing for that cause. The unnamed extremist witness (based on far right activist Tore Tvedt) dismissing such rogue terrorist attacks as unhelpful is not reassuring. Even if this one man ultimately lost his battle, the war has seen an advance from his side. The film acknowledges the fight continues and that it may take later generations to prevail completely.

For my part, I guess I should be focusing more on the hero of 22 July. When not over-assisted by Greengrass with the dramatic devices of audio flashbacks and heavy scoring (with music by Sune Martin) or undermined by the filmmaker’s usual choppy editing (this time working with Argo Oscar winner William Goldenberg), Gravli delivers a very affecting performance as Hanssen, a young man trying to be strong while also obviously still weakened and needing to present a balance of the two for the sake of representing endurance of human spirit without ignoring the impact of the attacks and the memory of its casualties. Unfortunately, his achievement is trapped in stagy scenes out of a generic TV movie and never reaches the level of power of the more thought-provoking elements pertaining to the terrorist’s rights and ruses.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.