In 2011, right-wing extremists claimed the lives of 77 innocent civilians during the deadliest act of terrorism in Norway’s history. Paul Greengrass’s dramatization of this event in 22 July is intended as a rally cry against the spread of fascism. Unfortunately, Greengrass has opted to fight extremity with exploitation: there’s hardly a moment in 22 July that doesn’t feel shamelessly unethical in its depiction of a real-life tragedy. The film operates in two main sections, the attack and its aftermath, and both conjure a slew of problems. The former features Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) planning and executing his attack, starting with a car bomb in Oslo and culminating in the man’s methodical killing of a slew of innocent children on the island of Utøya. Greengrass shoots and edits these scenes with such intense motion that he turns horror into excitement, making a tragedy come off like any other standard action movie — and makes the victims’ deaths a mere catalyst for shock value.
Once Anders is captured, the narrative splits off into several directions — including a focus on the appointed defense counsel Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), and a moral dilemma that’s ultimately dropped a few scenes later — before settling on the slow rehabilitation of survivor Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), and how he must overcome his trauma by testifying at Anders’s upcoming trial. This is where Greengrass makes his biggest misstep, framing Hanseen’s rehabilitation in the most sickeningly sappy way possible: by having him stand-up to the big bad bully terrorist at the end and getting his cliched revenge of ‘living on.’ 22 July may not ultimately be quite as detestable as Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (a film that featured the slaughtering of third-world citizens of circumstance as its climax), though it’s just as contrived.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 2.