Paul Greengrass can direct the hell out of action movies (see the last three Bourne films), but it’s his docudramas that that hit with gut punch force, starting with the troubles in Northern Ireland in 2002’s Bloody Sunday and moving onto 2006’s United 93, about the hijacked flight that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 9/11, and 2012’s Captain Phillips, about the crew of the Maersk Alabama being taken hostage by pirates in the Indian Ocean.
22 July follows the Greengrass you-are-there approach as it re-enacts the 2011 massacre of 77 people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik, (Anders Danielsen Lie is terrifying in his controlled derangement), a right-wing extremist who believe his country’s accepting policy toward immigrants is killing Norway. Breivik starts that infamous July day by setting off a bomb near the Oslo office of the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), killing eight bystanders. Later, disguised as a policeman, Beivik ferries to the remote island of Utoya with an arsenal of guns that he uses to systematically execute teens enjoying summer camp. Not just a random group of teens. These young people are the progeny of Norway’s ruling class. Besides the 69 dead, over 200 others would be left injured and with psychological wounds far more resistant to healing.
Greengrass films these scenes with heart-wrenching mastery that reveals the human compassion of which the assassin is incapable. Acts of terrorism are so tragically common today that Greengrass performs the service of reminding a numb world of the value of each individual life lost to a madman’s cause. The first hour of &amp;amp;amp;lt;em&amp;amp;amp;gt;22 July&amp;amp;amp;lt;/em&amp;amp;amp;gt; burns so intensely that it shakes you to the core. The remainder of the film is more problematic, focusing as it does on Beivik and his trial the following year. Why should we give this monster the attention he craves? Lie is such a commanding actor that he draws us in, inciting us to stare into an assassin’s eyes looking for any sign of remorse or some clue into the brutality of his actions.
Greengrass, who also wrote the film, is quick to show how Breivik’s own lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) is reluctant to get close to the man he’s tasked to represent. His client won’t agree to a plea of insanity, claiming to be a part of a vast conspiracy of right-wingers, one of whom testifies for the cause but wants no part of Beivik. Who would? Greengrass compensates by devoting screen time to one of Brevik’s victims, a survivor named Viljar Hanssen (the outstanding Jonas Strand Gravli), whose resulting blindness in one eye is exacerbated by the fact that a bullet fragment in his head could later invade his brain. The trauma of Viljar’s experience, and his arduous rehabilitation, has made the boy reluctant to testify in court. And when eventually he does, 22 July gives way to speech-making that rings false in a film by Greengrass, who has always demonstrated that show is more persuasive than tell. Such glib compromises may blunt the effect of 22 July, but there’s no doubting its power. This film will take a piece out of you.