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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.

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