Alongside the adrenaline rush and slick action pyrotechnics of his entries in the Bourne franchise, director Paul Greengrass has built a parallel body of work crafting visceral thrillers out of real-life events invested with narrative integrity, psychological complexity and thoughtful political perspective. 22 July is a worthy addition to the ranks of Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips. It's both a pulse-pounding depiction of the deadly attacks that shook Norway in 2011 and a sober investigation of the aftermath, evolving into a gripping courtroom drama and a tremendously emotional personal account of one family's struggle to move on.
The Netflix feature is the second dramatic treatment this year of the mass killings, following Norwegian director Erik Poppe's similarly titled U-July 22, which premiered in the Berlin competition in February. While that film was constructed around an immersive real-time recreation of the lone gunman's massacre of a summer-camp youth group on Utoya Island near Oslo, Greengrass widens the lens to provide greater political and social context as well as detailed insight into the killer's motives.
Invariably when recent tragedies like this are tackled onscreen, questions arise concerning the intended audience or even the value of reopening still-raw wounds. That would explain the relative scarcity of films about U.S. mass shootings, despite the almost anesthetizing frequency with which they occur. Gus Van Sant's fictionalized Elephant from 2003, inspired by the Columbine High School massacre four years earlier, remains arguably the most provocative American film made about a national tragedy of this type.
Greengrass, working from a screenplay he based on the book One of Us by journalist Asne Seierstad, has made a distinctly European film with a Norwegian cast and crew. It serves as a stirring memorial to the 77 lives lost that day and the countless others scarred forever. Yet despite the specificity of the events it depicts and the vastly different political landscape in which they took place, the English-language drama is no less relevant to the situation in the U.S. As a chilling example of far-right extremism bred out of fear, xenophobia and a warped notion of patriotism, it's all too immediate. And as evidence of the need for stricter gun laws, it makes a trenchant statement.
The movie opens with the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), wearing a gas mask, methodically mixing fertilizer and nitrates in the barn of an isolated farm. As Breivik loads the homemade bombs into his van and rigs bricks of explosives, Greengrass and editor William Goldenberg cut nimbly back and forth, to members of the youth division of the majority Labour Party traveling by ferry to Utoya, and to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) being briefed for his address to the youth conference the following day.
Establishing tension in this manner is something at which Greengrass excels, and knowing what follows doesn't make it any less nail-biting. With great economy, he alludes to Stoltenberg's pro-immigration policies via a youth group exercise on the island, during which one of the participants, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), describes with pride the multicultural makeup of his small-town home in the north. He says that were he to become a leader, that's precisely the kind of welcoming society he would work to foster. Earlier, we've seen the briefest flirtatious exchange of smiles across a campfire between Viljar and Lara (Seda Witt), later identified as the daughter of refugees.
Rather than setting up any movie-ish adolescent love story to temper the grim sequence of events to come, all this makes it intensely personal when Breivik starts mowing down these idealistic kids, without a trace of emotion. After being apprehended, he makes lofty claims about going to war to take back his country by wiping out the children of the liberal elite, the leaders of tomorrow. His rhetoric calling for a ban on immigration and an end to "enforced multiculturalism," delivered by the riveting Danielsen Lie with just the slightest self-satisfied smile of an egomaniac, will be unsettlingly familiar to audiences of many nationalities that have witnessed the resurgence of the far right.
The prelude to the carnage is the explosion in the Oslo government district of Breivik's van, which brings instant chaos and monopolizes law enforcement while he makes his way to the ferry dock in a fake police uniform. The ease with which he talks his way onto the suspended service and crosses to the island carrying two large cases of firearms is chilling. And despite the numbing familiarity of the scenario that unfolds once he gets there, the matter-of-fact presentation of the killings and the screams of the victims are deeply distressing. The horror reaches a crescendo as Breivik approaches a group including Viljar and his younger brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen), who have clambered down a rock face at the shore to hide.
Nowhere does Greengrass pump up the violence for heightened impact; it's simply death at its most basic and brutal, dispensed with cold efficiency. Nor does the director sentimentalize the trauma that follows, as the critically wounded Viljar undergoes emergency surgeries and begins a long, painful path toward recovery, an ordeal marked by periods of anger, frustration and defeat. The script remains clear-eyed and free from cliché as the boy's mother Christin (Maria Bock), the newly elected mayor of their town, and his father Sveinn (Thorbjorn Harr) find their opinions diverging on the best way for their son to begin healing.
The entire cast acts with unimpeachable naturalism, but the core family members, along with Witt as Lara, deliver the film's most wrenching moments. Strand Gravli in particular is a gifted young actor to watch.
The trial also is shown without sensationalism or righteous grandstanding, giving a fascinating glimpse into the legal process of a country staunchly committed to universal human rights, even as sentiments run high among the victims' families and the population at large. Nor are there breast-beating speeches from Stoltenberg, who responds to the tragedy simply with the compassion, humility and sense of responsibility that befits his office.
Breivik requests as his lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden), who had impressed him years earlier in his successful defense of a neo-Nazi. The liberal-leaning family man is professionally obliged to take on the case, and the shifting dynamic between client and attorney, the latter working for a terrorist whose ideologies he clearly finds abhorrent, yields yet more distinctive layers of dramatic texture.
Crisply shot with no-fuss agility by Pal Ulvik Rokseth, this is a tough film — raw and harrowing but at the same time admirably uninflected and measured at every step. Even the vehemently anti-extremist dialogue of the concluding stretch feels like a necessary moral summation, a statement of resistance determined by the subject matter, not preachy sentiments dictated by the rules of narrative drama. Greengrass is a superb craftsman and this kind of hard-hitting realism, with its echoes of his documentary roots, brings out the best in him. 22 July should be required viewing for all complacent politicians who refuse to work toward an adequate response to gun violence or to acknowledge the dangers of allowing race-based hatred to go unchecked.
Production companies: Scott Rudin Productions, Netflix
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jon Oigarden, Jonas Strand Gravli, Maria Bock, Thorbjorn Harr, Ola G. Furuseth, Seda Witt, Isak Bakli Aglen
Director-screenwriter: Paul Greengrass, based on the book One of Us by Asne Seierstad
Producers: Scott Rudin, Paul Greengrass, Gregory Goodman, Eli Bush
Executive producer: Chris Carreras
Director of photography: Pal Ulvik Rokseth
Production designer: Liv Ask
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Music: Sune Martin
Editor: William Goldenberg
Casting: Dan Hubbard, Ellen Michelsen
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)