There is a certain aesthetic one expects from a Paul Greengrass film. 22 July doesn’t veer far from his signature style, but it is subtler in its affect. While there is a lot of handheld work in his depiction of the horrible 2011 terrorist attack upon a group of Labour Party Youth campers in Norway, overall the film is toned down in that regard. You won’t need Dramamine to watch it.
More importantly, this is Greengrass in United 93 – and more to the point, Bloody Sunday mode. 22 July is a searing look at not only the event that left 77 young people dead, but also the aftermath. What it takes for a terribly wounded survivor (Viljar Hanssen – played with crushing vulnerability by Jonas Strand Gravil) to not only survive his physical injuries, but the emotional ones as well. Which cut much deeper than the bullets that pierced his body.
It’s also about the futility of “why?” Why would a young man who grew up in an unremarkable way be so set on delivering such mayhem on a group of young people? As played chillingly by Anders Danielsen Lie, mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is an alt-right enigma with delusions of grandeur. We never learn the answer to his motivations. Which felt right to me. As rational human beings, we have a desire to make sense of all things. Especially the worst of things. To accept that we can’t understand something feels like a type of failure.
22 July posits with great humanity that maybe we would be better off tending to the hurt after such an awful event. That maybe some things are beyond us. Like trying to wrap one’s head around a psychologically damaged young man with no access to empathy. It’s a bold choice. I think it’s the correct one.
The film frontloads the horror of that day’s events. We barely have time to get to know the young campers or their counselors before their bodies start dropping. Greengrass films the event slowly, virtually in real time. Showing Breivik’s methodical approach. You get the sense his pulse barely quickened. That’s not to say yours won’t. Greengrass holds nothing back. Flesh is torn, screams and whimpers are heard, and blood hits the ground. It’s not exploitative or in any way “cool”. It’s matter of fact in its approach. Which makes it that much harder to take.
This is when we first get to know Viljar. A young man you can see is a natural born leader. Tall, handsome, and a reassuring voice to the other campers. He keeps his head while all about him are losing theirs. Until his is nearly taken off by a bullet over his right eye. Another bullet to the shoulder and one to the leg leaves him crumpled upon beach rock. His younger brother wants to help him. Viljar tells him to go, and so he does. It is quite simply devastating.
It was no surprise to me that Greengrass could film a sequence of such violence effectively. He’s one of the best in the business at that sort of thing. What I was not prepared for is how well he handled the remainder of the film. Which juxtaposes largely fruitless interrogations of Breivik with Viljar’s efforts to regain both his cognitive and physical abilities, as much as he can.
Remarkably, the brain damage concerns are dispensed with quickly. Despite having bullet fragments near his brain stem that cannot be removed, Viljar recovers his faculties quickly. His body is not nearly so fortunate. He will walk, but never again with ease. His right eye will be lost and replaced by a prosthetic. He will always be in pain. Which is nothing compared to the psychological damage inflicted upon him.
The beating heart of the film is Viljar’s struggle to recover not only his body and his mind, but his place in the world. It is an appropriately grueling journey. Made up of setbacks, anguish, and frustration. Watching Viljar come to terms with his infirmity is no easy sit. Nor should it be.
The film culminates with Viljar testifying at Breivik’s trial, facing down his butcher. Greengrass stays within himself here. He does not play the moment for uplift, or with big emotions. There is no obtrusive score telling you how to feel. Just a young man summoning all the courage in his broken body to state that he is still free and pointedly, his attacker is not.
It’s a simple message. It’s also a profound one. Viljar can make something of the rest of his life. Even while physically diminished. Whereas Breivik will quite likely spend his remaining days in solitary confinement. In victimizing Viljar and his fellow camp mates, Breivik has done the same to himself.
While Greengrass presents this sequence without fanfare, it is incredibly moving. And when Viljar stands alone in the Norwegian wilderness, the air making steam of his breath, he is nothing less than reborn.