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Non-Review Review: 22 July

22 July is both a very well made and a spectacularly ill-judged film.

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July focuses on the infamous attacks conducted by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011. The attacks were brutal and horrific, and sent shockwaves across both Europe and North America. To a certain extent, Breivik’s attacks prefigured a wave of similar violence in the years that followed, violence driven by nativism and xenophobia, toxic forms of ethno-nationalism that crept in to the social and politic spheres. There is no denying that these attacks (and their aftermath) deserve attention and discussion. They are a formative moment in modern western politics.

However, there is also a sense that Paul Greengrass might not be the best director to tell this sort of story. There are several reasons for this, but most them come down to Greengrass’ stylistic sensibilities, his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is incredibly obvious from the outset what kind of film Greengrass is trying to make. Greengrass is trying to capture the horror and brutality of Breivik’s actions, and to present the ordinary everyday heroism of those who survived and endured his assault. However, Greengrass’ directorial sensibilities conspire to undercut these aspects of the film.

Greengrass may be a very naturalistic film director, who at times seems almost like a documentarian in his storytelling, but he can direct a visceral and effective action sequence. This means that the part of 22 July that really feels alive and propulsive is the mass shooting. More than that, Greengrass’ no-frills style means that most of the characters in 22 July never feel particularly well-developed or well-formed, never having a life outside of the frame or what the movie expects of them. As a result, the only character who does stand out is Brievik himself.

The result is a film about mass murder and ethno-nationalism that structurally resembles more conventional issue-driven movies, but without any of the strong emotional cues or distinctive performances that serve to place the moral weight within those narratives. Instead, 22 July often feels rather blunt and matter-of-fact, a collection of events and occurrences without any actual living characters to clog up the mechanics. The only things that stand out within 22 July are those elements that are (by their nature) heightened and extreme.

The result is a movie about a horrific terrorist attack that only seems to come alive in its depiction of the attack, and an ensemble drama about the cultural response to trauma where the only compelling character is a white supremacist terrorist.

To be entirely fair, it’s very clear that Paul Greengrass is trying to tell an inspiring story about how society copes with traumas like those inflicted by Brievik. This is obvious both from the general arc of the film and the constantly repeated themes of the story. The bulk of 22 July is actually devoted to exploring the aftermath of Brievik’s attack, with particular emphasis on his trial. Brievik wants to turn his trial into a platform for his extremist beliefs about immigration and the “Marxists, liberals, members of the elite” that he believes to be undermining Norway as a whole.

The film is structured in such a way that it builds towards Brievik’s humiliation and disenfranchisement. The film signals that it is going in this direction almost immediately, allowing Brievik a platform to outline his beliefs while also shifting its focus to some of the survivors of his assault. Brievik’s attempts to control the narrative of the attack are paralleled with one victim’s road to recovery, in a way that makes it clear that the climax will play the two off one another as avatars for the future of the country as a whole. It’s hardly the most innovative approach to this kind of story. In narrative terms, it’s practically a feel-good arc.

On paper, it would be easy to imagine a version of 22 July that recalled the triumphant trauma narratives of movies like Stronger or Patriot’s Day, a story about heroism and bravery in the face of unimaginable brutality. The script even gestures towards that. “I just want to beat him,” explains one survivor of his long road to recovery motivated by a refusal to let Breivik win. It’s probably for the best that Greengrass avoids awkward sentimentality, but he finds nothing to fill the vacuum that his directorial remove creates.

Similarly, 22 July repeatedly stresses that Brievik can only be defeated through the systems that he seeks to dismantle. It is a traditional liberal argument that undercutting or suspending due process, even if it seems convenient or necessary, ultimately just empowers those who are attacking society. 22 July argues repeatedly and aggressively that Brievik is entitled to due process despite the heinous nature of his crime, no matter how uncomfortable that might make people. There is an inherent optimism in this argument, a belief that the system is strong enough and robust enough to offer true justice; even to a monster.

“People will be unhappy,” Brievik notes when his lawyer exploits an insanity plea to keep him out of prison. His lawyer simply responds, “It’s the law.” There is no humanity here, just an impartial system that exists to process atrocities like this and monsters like Brievik. “Will I be able to address the court?” Brievik asks at one point. His lawyer responds, “I will petition them and you will have the same rights as any other defendant.” There is a sense that 22 July is an argument for due process, believing that due process can achieve fair and reasonable outcomes even when faced with cases as provocative as these.

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions. On a purely practical level, all of this seems just a little naive and trite. It’s earnest to the point of being saccharine. In the hands of a more overtly sentimental director, this would seem like sentimental nonsense. After all, there are legitimate concerns in the United States about whether the structures of liberal democracy can withstand the pressure of extremist ethno-nationalism. Even in the context of 22 July, it seems like Brievik only ends up in prison (where he belongs) due to his own arrogance and poor decisions rather than as a result of any robustness built into the system.

With that in mind, it is probably for the best that Greengrass largely avoids overt sentimentality in the way that he approaches 22 July. After all, the mass murder of a bunch of children and the ensuing political chaos is hardly fodder for a feel-good Capra-esque fable about the wonders of good government. Greengrass approaches this story with a cold and dispassionate eye, to the point that 22 July occasionally feels like a movie assembled from the dramatic reconstructions of some more thorough and insightful companion documentary.

Greengrass approaches most of his subjects and most of his events in a very straightforward and matter-of-fact manner. There is very little sense of who many of these characters are, outside the context of the film. 22 July does an excellent job of articulating where its characters come from and the function that they serve in terms of the narrative, but very little in terms of treating them as fully-formed human beings. Most of the characters in 22 July feel like cogs in a machine, pieces being moved around a chessboard.

Breivik himself is an exception to this, in large part because the nature of the movie means that it has to develop him as a character. The film delves into his back story and his history, explores his motivations and emphasises how unique he is compared to everybody else. Of course, 22 July cannot avoid this focus on Breivik; it has to explain how Breivik is different from normal people, it has to account for what could have driven somebody to commit these heinous acts. As a result, the film spends a lot of time with Breivik, digging into his political beliefs and his background.

This creates an imbalance that the film never really shakes off. All the characters around Breivik are generic and underdeveloped, while Breivik gets a lot of focus. Admittedly, a lot of that focus is designed to belittle and demythologise Breivik, to reveal him as a fraud and a fake, as a bitter loser who lashed out a world that can withstand whatever trauma that he might want to inflict upon it. “There will be others, to finish what I started,” Breivik boasts at one point. “And we’ll beat you,” comes the reply. However, given how underdeveloped these other characters are, it feels unconvincing.

The matter is somewhat compounded by Paul Greengrass’ distinctive directorial aesthetic. Greengrass tends to favour handheld camera shots to offer a sense of immediacy and intimacy, prioritising it ahead of a cleaner and clearer aesthetic. Unfortunately, this handheld approach is an awkward fit for the more bureaucratic and political sequences in the film, long scenes of characters sitting in rooms exchanging dialogue. Greengrass’ more naturalistic approach works most effectively in the open, and during action scenes.

This creates an issue, given that the most significant action scene is the one depicting the mass murder of a group of children by Breivik. These sequences are harrowing and horrific, as they should be. However, they are also lean and visceral. They are horrific, but in ways that do not necessarily work together. They are horrific because they effectively recreate an original tragedy, but they are also horrific because they are brutally efficient filmmaking. The result is a film that feels uncomfortable and provocative, but not necessarily in a way that it wants to be.

22 July is a very well-made film, the work of a director who clearly knows how to put a film together. However, 22 July also prompts the audience to wonder why this director would choose to put this particular film together. From a narrative perspective, the film’s heart is in the right place. However, the film is put together so cleanly and efficiently that there’s no room for heart in the finished product.

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