Does anyone ever truly relish seeing a new Paul Greengrass movie? Yes, the 63-year-old British director has made some brilliant films over the past 20 years – being one of those rare filmmakers whose art and heart are both in the right place. But his best work can often leave you feeling like you’ve being punched in the gut while on a rollercoaster: The handheld camera shots; the propulsive sound; the energetic editing; and the (oftentimes) cinematic righting of real-life wrongs.
This is the man who brilliantly recreated a British Army massacre in Northern Ireland, putting you at the heart of the chaotic bloodbath (in his breakthrough 2001 movie “Bloody Sunday”); showed the heroic but doomed fightback of a group of passengers onboard flight United 93 in the 2007 movie of the same name (which remains the best 9/11 feature); and detailed the harrowing experience of an American skipper kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2013’s “Captain Phillips.”
Then of course there are the more commercial films he makes with Matt Damon – the “Bourne” trilogy and 2010’s “Green Zone,” which is arguably the most underrated Hollywood thriller about the Iraq War. Even when he goes mainstream, Greengrass still offer foods for thought to accompany the popcorn.
So how to approach his first-ever Netflix film, “22 July”? For me, it was definitely with trepidation. Greengrass is brilliant at staging chaos, leaving you with the (unwanted) sensation that you are at the heart of the action. But who wants to feel that when you’re talking about a recreation of one of the worst terror attacks committed by a single perpetrator in modern European history? That day in 2011 when 32-year-old neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb near the Prime Minister’s Office in Oslo, killing eight, and then headed over to the small neighboring island of Utøya and mercilessly mowed down 69 people, mainly young socialists, before being apprehended by the police.
The most important thing to note is that Greengrass has filmed the massacre – which comprises about a quarter of the movie – with tremendous restraint. He forgoes his usual frenetic style, choosing to present the carnage in as sensitive a way as possible. In fact, he actually downplays the cinematic element: In real life, Breivik had two different laser sights on his guns to line up victims – a red trace on his rifle and green one on his pistol. Greengrass generally avoids depicting the worse elements of the slaughter, allowing the horror to come from the cold-blooded manner of the executions rather than showing the worst of it to us.
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There is another, bigger reason why Greengrass takes this restrained approach: In “22 July,” he is actively trying to appeal to young viewers of shows like Netflix’s giant hit “13 Reasons Why.” He’s not interested in the actual massacre on Utøya as much as what happened afterward, when Breivig went on trial for murder and how Norway ultimately prevailed over a man who wanted to bring down the country’s democracy.
In order to appeal to these viewers, Greengrass – who also wrote the script – has divided the film into three elements: the attack; a young character’s difficult rehabilitation from a life-threatening injury; and the actual trial, in which the young victims uniquely got to confront their attacker.
The other significant thing he does is cast a charismatic, fresh-faced actor to play Breivik: Even though actor Anders Danielsen Lie is actually slightly older than the real-life killer, you wouldn’t guess there are actually at least 15 years between the attacker and many of his victims). It’s a chilling performance both during the shooting spree (“You will die today Marxists, liberals, members of the elite,” he dispassionately declares before executing a room of youngsters) and later as he proudly stands behind his actions (“I have started a war to take back control of Norway, of the West, and defending me will be the greatest thing you will ever do,” he tells the hapless lawyer he has handpicked to defend him).
The counterbalance to Breivik is Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a young and innocent 17-year-old attending the Workers Youth League summer camp at Utøya with his 14-year-old brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen). Both find themselves in the sights of the killer as they try to hide on the island, and what happens next shapes the rest of the film.
There are several interesting subplots – one involves Breivik’s defense lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) and the pressure he faces when asked to represent Norway’s most notorious man. Another addresses the issue of the political ramifications for left-wing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (he famously said that Norway’s answer to the tragedy would be “more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety”). Another film might have delved into that more deeply. But Greengrass wants to focus on the killer and the young victims, including a Norwegian-Iraqi girl called Lara Rashid (Seda Witt), who has a tentative friendship with Viljar.
Crusade for democracy
All of these decisions – and also the choice to make the film with the Norwegian cast speaking English – are dramatically valid and seek to bring the film to the widest possible audience. But as a result, the film isn’t as hard-hitting or overwhelming as Greengrass’s best work. You emerge at the end of “United 93” a quivering mess. But “22 July” leaves you a little disconcerted by the neatness of the ending, the packaging of the story and its almost feel-good message that democracy can defeat fascism if the youth of the world make their voices heard.
In the same way that Breivik invokes the Knights Templar as part of his crusade to fight multiculturalism and to “get Islam out of Europe,” Greengrass is on a crusade of his own – for democracy. It’s interesting to note that he was initially looking to make a movie about the humanitarian crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa (the ground zero for asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean from Africa), but then felt the larger story was actually the right-wing reaction to globalism.
He explained to the BBC recently that he knew he wanted to make a film about the massacre when he read Breivik’s court testimony and was struck by how arguments that would have been thought of as extreme in 2011-2012 were now mainstream among millions of people across Europe, and he in effect wanted to send up a warning signal.
Laudable sentiments to make a movie, but I still think aiming squarely at younger viewers weakens his film. I’m also not sure young people who binge-watch “13 Reasons Why” are ever going to sit through a 143-minute film about a brutal massacre in Norway, even when it is shaped around an inspiring story about mental and physical rehabilitation.
Yet despite its flaws, “22 July” is still worth watching – and I intend to see it again soon with my teenage kids (Netflix has given the film a 15 rating, which seems about right). There are powerful scenes (the Nazi salute Breivik delivers at one point in the courtroom is genuinely startling), disturbing scenes (it’s impossible not to be haunted by the ease with which Breivik kills so many) and even a few beautiful scenes in the Arctic Circle where Viljar and his family live.
The fact that another film, the Norwegian “U – 22 July,” is also screening in countries across Europe now – focusing squarely on the 75 minutes of the attack from the youngsters’ perspective – demonstrates that there is more than one way to tell this horrifying story. It’s just not clear that Greengrass chose the best approach for his undoubted talents.