Since hitting his creative stride in 2002 with Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass has been making two kinds of films. The first is the kind that is unsettling, conveys realism, exposes important socio-political factors, and entertains. These films are Green Zone, Captain Phillips, and the Bourne sequels. The second kind of film that Greengrass makes contains all of the same elements minus entertainment. They retell tragedies and sit their heavy circumstances and ramifications right in the pit of viewers’ stomachs. These films are Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Greengrass’ latest work, 22 July.
22 July relates the real-life events of the eponymous day in 2011 Norway. Then and there Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb outside of an Oslo government building, killing 8, and proceeded to a teen campsite on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people.
Greengrass’ entertaining action flicks have a self proclaimed “foot on the accelerator, full tilt adrenaline rush” from beginning to end.* But 22 July is part of that other family, not meant to be exhilarating. It’s portrayed as Bloody Sunday and United 93 are – slowly, the documentary-style tracking of characters providing a shaky omen. The omen ramps up to and immerses us in a tragedy. We don’t know what being there was really like, nor should we want to, but we are given a distant glimpse. Greengrass’ intention is to use such glimpses as a careful memorialization. He was successful at this, in my view. But I am part of the American audience that is his bread and butter.
Norwegian reactions, based on the trailer’s YouTube comments, were more mixed than the U.S. reception.
User Cheffy commented, “….making a movie and releasing it on NETFLIX thus showing it to the whole world gives Breivik exactly what he wanted."
User Katharina Langsethagen commented, "Highlighting [Breivik] like this is wrong, and should not have been done in my opinion."
User Smilende Blomst commented, "….making this movie sharing Breivik’s ideologi [sic] just helps him and his fucked up goal. Feels absolutely disrespectful. Also why make it in english [sic]?"
These sentiments were in the top ten rated comments at the time of this article’s writing. They mostly seem to be posted by Norwegians. Many more replies throughout related similar dissatisfaction.
A common Norwegian response was that the film gave too much attention to the perpetrator. Many comments disparaged 22 July in favor of Utøya 22. juli, a Norwegian-made film which apparently portrays the same event but does not portray the terrorist. (It had a very limited U.S. release and I haven’t been able to see it yet.)
It seems like a lot of viewers from Norway contend that giving Breivik so much screen time, or even any screen time, is a distasteful glorification of the evil and harmful man.
Greengrass received some similar flack for portraying the terrorist perspective in United 93 and the pirate perspective in Captain Phillips, but 22 July took on a markedly higher outcry for the same thing. I, an American, view all of Greengrass’ villain focuses as simply matter-of-fact-like, allowing considerations to be drawn from a realistic presentation. In the specific case of 22 July, I think the Breivik presentation only solidifies his guilt. His atrocities are accompanied by delusions of grandeur. These delusions, mainly that he is a beloved revolutionary, compound his evil and also appropriately belittle his twisted ideology (the ideology being, in short, that mass murder is the way to solve mass immigration.)
The showing of Breivik also effectively contrasts and so helps sharpen how wronged the innocent victims were. Viljar Hanssen, played by Jonas Strand Gravli, is plagued with physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, and his impending testimony against Breivik. Hanssen is a singular microcosm of the Norwegian people – injured, shaken, supported, resolute.
As shown though, perhaps this read of the film more reflects American sensibility than Norwegian. Norwegians, generally, seem to have a different taste for how real horrors are brought to film. But an important note on 22 July is that it is unabashedly made for U.S. (and other English-speaking countries) viewers. The characters speak English throughout even though it’s not the native or common language of Norway.
It could be argued that only Norwegians should decide how to make art based on their tragedy, but I don’t think it’s a correct assertion. Unfortunately, there’ve been so many terror attacks in the world that I wasn’t immediately quite sure which one 22 July relayed. Almost all American moviegoers know and trust Paul Greengrass, and any project of his is sure to garner mass attention here in the States. Why do we need to have such a strong imprint of Norway’s July 22, 2011 in the United States? Many here can recall the French Le Monde's headline after the 9/11 attacks: "We Are All Americans." The line reflected a global solidarity with the injured and against terror. Watching 22 July I felt a similar bond and sympathy with the people of Norway.
More immediately, 22 July illuminates the real, growing violence (and hypocrisy) of fascist groups. Neo-nazis are no longer just ostensibly harmless social Confederates. They exist all over the world, and their growth is currently the most dangerous and abhorent reaction to an admittedly real migrant crisis.
Throughout his career, Greengrass has brought to film examinations, condemnations, and reflections of terrorism from a wide span of ideologies. The terrorist in his latest film is a white supremacist, an ilk which has unfortunately become a pertinent concern across the globe. Greengrass’s body of work continues to further confirm that no amount of innocent lives taken will ever rightly solve or ameliorate an issue.
After seeing United 93 in 2006, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for over ten years. It was seemingly a very real portrayal of a real tragedy that most Americans my age or older are emotionally attached to. It and 22 July are not meant to be weekend reruns. A single viewing is enough to instill what matters most.
With the horror of flight United 93 came a memorable response from the victims and their compatriots. An important part of it was the conveyance that terror will not be victorious. This was espoused as well by the people of Norway on 22 July, and IN 22 July.
Paul Greengrass, once again, has done a caring and worthwhile job of crafting a cinematic memorial.
22 July is available to stream on Netflix.