Paul Greengrass is one of the few working filmmakers who can take a real-life tragedy and present it in such a respectful and tasteful way that it never comes across as exploitative or made simply to get easy acclaim from critics. After his depictions of the September 11th attacks in United 93 (2006) and the Maersk Alabama hijacking in Captain Philips (2013), both excellent films that display his skills as a director perfectly, he now turns his attention to the 2011 Norway attacks by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. In contrast with his previous films, however, 22 July focuses less on the attack and more with the aftermath, a decision that works to the film’s detriment.
The first thirty minutes, depicting the attack itself and presented using Greengrass’s trademark docudrama style, is among the most horrifying and emotional footage you will watch all year. It is a harrowing recreation of the event, and while it walks the line between respectful and unethical, it never crosses into the latter. In an attack that killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, not depicting the violence as it happened could be disrespectful in and of itself, a sentiment both Greengrass and the parents of the victims have expressed. The violence is shown in full effect, and it does not make for an easy watch, but that is exactly the point. As a testament to how well it captures the attack, some of the shots could easily be passed off as stock footage. The image of the police walking around Utøya island immediately after the attack, dead bodies covering the ground, will stick with you long after the film has ended.
Where 22 July falls apart is the remainder of its runtime. It attempts to cover so many characters but is unable to dedicate the screen time that each of them deserves, leading to an unfocused mess of ideas and themes. The lawyer, forced against his will to defend Breivik in court, could have been the focus of an entire film, but his conflict between defending Breivik’s actions and respecting the rule of law, not to mention the effect the case has on his family, is the focus of roughly two scenes before being swept under the rug. There is an attempt to delve into the psyche of Breivik as he tries to justify his actions, but the film seems almost afraid to go beyond basic discussions of extreme right-wing ideology without exploring where it comes from or what aftermath it has on society.
Most of the characters, especially the survivors of Utøya island, lack development. You’d be hard pressed to describe the lives of anyone prior to the attack, and some of the most basic relationships between characters aren’t clearly defined until over an hour in, a consequence of jumping straight into the attack with little setup. The decision to cast entirely Norwegian actors but have them speak English is also a baffling one, and at 143 minutes the film could have benefited from a more concise runtime.
Greengrass has stated that one of his main reasons for releasing 22 July directly to Netflix was so it would be seen by a younger demographic than this sort of film is typically aimed at. His justification for this is because it is that generation that will have to deal with the renewed support for the far-right in the future. It is a respectable film, no doubt made with the best of intentions, but it has little to say about any of the issues it raises.