22 July tells the heart-breaking true story of how right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik killed over seventy people and injured hundreds more on one seemingly normal day in 2011, most of them teens attending a Norwegian Labour Party Youth Camp on Utøya Island outside of Oslo.
Deep in the wilderness, Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, August 31st) packs a van with explosives before driving to the government district of Oslo, leaving it there to blow up and cause as much damage and commotion as possible. With everyone distracted by the massive explosion, Breivik ferries another van to the island where he pretends to be a police officer sent to guard the inhabitants, but soon opens fire on every soul he comes across, massacring another 68 people.
Not to be confused with Erik Poppe’s U – July 22, another film this year presenting much of the same story told here, director Paul Greengrass (Jason Bourne, Captain Phillips) is familiar with dramatizing historical tragedies in acclaimed films like United 93 and Bloody Sunday, and seemed the perfect choice to adapt journalist Asne Seierstad’s book “One of Us”, of which Greengrass would also write the screenplay. Unfortunately, despite what I’m sure were his best intentions, the resulting film feels exploitative in distressing ways that don’t honor the very real survivors of the event itself.
22 July largely focuses on two stories, one how Breivik is arrested and the subsequent relationship that unfolds during his trial alongside lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden, The Half Brother), the other following how the tragedy affects the survivors. Among them are two brothers, one severely injured, their mother, Siv (Anja Maria Svenkerud) who is running for mayor and Lara (Seda Witt) who lost her sister on the island.
With an estimated budget of $20 million the movie kept my attention for the majority of the time, though it became obvious within the first half-hour the flow of the story wasn’t well crafted, quickly changing focus from a more action-driven recreation of events to a stodgy legal drama, albeit with some really wonderful acting. On the other hand, this is a technically impressive film. While much of the story has a somewhat surreal feel to it due its graphic nature, the camera had a very natural way of capturing the drab Norwegian surroundings without making them feel artificial. Even the courtroom scenes felt real and engaging.
Apart from the tragic events that unfolded, it was disheartening to see how much of the film was about Breivik, who despite an impeccably great performance by Lie, did little to elicit sympathy from the audience. Maybe this was the appropriate response, but if the intent wasn’t to humanize his actions but attempt to explain what could possibly motivate someone to senselessly slaughter their fellow human beings, it doesn’t succeed. If only more focus had been given to Breivik’s victims prior to the attacks then perhaps a more empathetic narrative might have emerged from the physical and emotional wreckage.
Meanwhile, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), the older of two brothers who barely survived five bullet wounds, one to his head, only had a few minutes of screen time before the shooting began; of their two best friends who didn’t survive, I’m not sure audiences could even identify the actors. Yet they were Viljar’s motivation for bravely facing Breivik in court and the reason he decided that he wanted to live his life to the fullest, overcoming the shock and post-traumatic stress he was obviously suffering from.
It’s difficult for to recommend 22 July, as by the time the credits rolled I felt resentment building toward Greengrass’ treatment of Breivik like some sort of hero rather than the monstrous killer he was, and continues to be, as he remains in total isolation for the rest of his life in prison. His actions don’t deserve the glorification on or off the screen as the film suggests, and the decision to recreate his horrific actions only serve to detract from everything else that follows. Which is a shame, as there’s a compelling story of survival in the face of true evil worth exploring here. Sadly, 22 July isn’t it.