22 July, which dramatizes the 2011 Norway massacre by far-right extremist Anders Breivik, is the latest entry in Paul Greengrasss cinematic chronicling of modern historical trauma. Outside of the three movies hes directed in the Bourne franchise (several of which rank among the best action films of the past two decades), Greengrass has devoted the entirety of his cinematic output to dramatizations of horrible events: the 1972 massacre of Irish civil rights protestors by British soldiers in Bloody Sunday (2002), the hijacking and subsequent crash of an airliner on 9/11 in United 93 (2006), the misguided U.S. invasion of Iraq in Green Zone (2010), and the hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips (2013).
Greengrass is a master orchestrator of historical violence, so it should come as no surprise that he was drawn to Breiviks terrorist attack, which involved detonating a van bomb at the Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo, killing eight people, and then, while the police were distracted by the fallout, slaughtering 69 teenagers and counselors at a summer camp for the children of liberal politicians on the island of Utya. In adapting journalist Asne Seierstads nonfiction account One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, Greengrass attempts to cover both the horror and its aftermath. The first third of the film details the attack itself, alternating between Breiviks (Anders Danielsen Lie) meticulous preparations and the soon-to-be victims assembling on the island for what they think will be days of fun. The violence of the attack is inherently unsettling, not only because so many of the victims were barely out of childhood, but because Breiviks approach was so intense and ruthless, a hunt-and-kill operation executed with cold-blooded efficiency. Greengrass, whose visual style is known for its intense use of hand-held cameras, close physical proximity to the violence, and jagged editing, dials back some of those characteristics while still conveying the violence with a sense of stomach-churning immediacy that clings to rest of the story like a bad dream.
The latter two-thirds of the film dramatizes the aftermath by alternating between two storylines that eventually converge in the courtroom: The first involves the long and painful physical recovery of Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), one of the teen campers who is critically wounded during the attack, while the second involves attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon igarden), who is given the unenviable task of heading up Breiviks defense. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) insists that Breiviks unprecedented violence must be met with the rule of law and order, which necessitates that he be given a fair trial. Lippestad, who is a husband and father and shares none of Breiviks twisted political ideology, must therefore mount a legal defense for a monster, which makes him a public enemy in the eyes of many. Geir becomes a kind of stand-in for the audience, as he must sit and listen to Breiviks unnervingly calculated justifications for his heinous actions, which revolve around his belief that he is a soldier firing the first shots in an eventual war against liberal politics, immigration, and multiculturalism in Europe. When asked why he targeted children, his simple answer is bone-chilling: I wanted to hit them [liberals] where it would hurt most.
This brings up one of the films sticky moral complications, which is that it inherently makes Breivik into a figure of perverse fascination. Anders Danielsen Lie plays him with an air of calm and collected narcissism that is undeniably fascinating; scary as it may be, we want to get into his head and understand how he could do what he did, if only because knowledge gives us some illusion of control. The manner in which he calmly lays out the reasoning behind his actions reminds us that racist, hateful monstrosity isnt always roaring and foaming at the mouth. Geirs defense initially revolves around an insanity plea, which Breivik ultimately rejects because he doesnt want his actions to be those of an deluded madman, but rather a conscientious soldier launching a morally justified civil war.
Greengrass makes a studious attempt to balance the films focus with the parallel story involving Viljars long and painful recuperationnot just physically, but emotionally and psychologically. To his credit, he makes Viljars story compelling, although it eventually winds its way into territory that might reasonably be compared to an underdog sports movie, with Viljar determined to walk into the courtroom and give his survivor testimony on the strength of his own two legs. Jonas Strand Gravli makes Viljar into a compelling character in his own right even as he functions as a kind of stand-in for all the damaged survivors, and the scenes in which he must grapple with his new reality is frequently captivating. The film is, if anything, a deeply felt portrait of post-traumatic stress and the impossibility of ever returning to normal after an event like the one depicted here. Interestingly, one could argue that Greengrass did not even need to dramatize the terrorist attack itself, as the films interest lies primarily in the aftermath. The depiction of the assault on Utya never feel exploitative, and Greengrasss camera often cuts away from the worst moments, focusing instead on the sheer terror of the teenagers and their desperate attempts to survive. In that sense, it does contribute to our understanding of both Viljars long road and the depths of Breiviks ideological perversion, but the film might have been even more gripping had most of it been left to our imagination, where things are always that much worse.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright Netflix
Overall Rating: (3)
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