22 July is shockingly real, unflinchingly brutal, and unfortunately in rather poor taste.
Synopsis: In 22 JULY, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Paul Greengrass (Captain Philips, United 93) tells the true story of the aftermath of Norway’s deadliest terrorist attack. On 22 July 2011, 77 people were killed when a far-right extremist detonated a car bomb in Oslo before carrying out a mass shooting at a leadership camp for teens. 22 JULY uses the lens of one survivor’s physical and emotional journey to portray the country’s path to healing and reconciliation. (Netflix)
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, and Jon Øigarden
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Director: Paul Greengrass
Rating: R (United States)
Running Time: 143mins
22 July is the epitome of “hard to watch” cinema. Its brutal and graphic violence married with director Paul Greengrass’ unflinching devotion to realism create an unforgettable and severely uncomfortable viewing experience. The film is also hard to watch in another way in that it seems interminably long and poorly paced.
The first act which makes up the first 30 minutes are by far the most captivating of the film – but much to the film’s detriment, the images presented are as morally shaky as the camera work Greengrass employs. The act follows the infamous bombing in Oslo, and the horrific and brutal shooting on Utøya island that followed. The bombing is accompanied by many gruesome images of destruction and of the countless injured and deceased which is a disturbing enough site to behold. This is immediately followed by an extended sequence on Utøya, during which the shootings of teenagers camping there are shown in extreme detail, with all the methodical pace and slow tension that you’d expect from Greengrass. The scene, as can be said of the whole film, hard to watch.
Once you get past the horrifying acts you’re witnessing, another issue comes to mind – that being the ethical and moral questionability of this act of the movie. In a film about a terrorist attack that killed nearly 70 people on the island alone, it is quite impossible to give each and every victim the screen time and attention required for each person to be fully fleshed out. However, witnessing the killing of countless “nameless” teenagers be used as a backdrop for the protagonist the film chooses to follow feels disrespectful, knowing full well that these were real people, real teenagers killed on that day. Their stories are glossed over, they’re treated as fodder and tension building action and suspense for the narrative of the protagonist. Every “nameless” teen shot during the first act of this film had a name – we simply don’t know it. This creates a bit of a paradox – how can you expect Greengrass to craft a compelling film if he must provide every victim with character, arc, and weight? Perhaps the answer to this question is another question – is there a reason for this film to have been made?
The film sheds no further light on the attacks of July 22nd 2011 than the wikipedia article surrounding the same date and events does. The film has nothing unique to say about these events, and instead focuses mainly on the aftermath. It follows Viljar Hanssen (Gravli), a survivor of the attack, struggling with the physical and mental strain following the event. Gravli puts in a compelling performance for what he’s given to work with, but unfortunately his arc has very little originality to it. While it can be conceded that the film follows a true story, it is a story we’ve seen many times before, and done better many times before. The only truly stand out element of the film was Lie’s performance as Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the attacks. The film somehow makes the antagonist the main focus of the story, and while never endorsing his actions, the film’s lingering and seemingly constant focus on his character leaves an empty and uncomfortable feeling. Lie’s performance is chilling and terrifying, but in a film that is already far too long (clocking in at nearly two and a half hours), the time spent on this character begins to feel somewhat gratuitous as the story went on.
Another issue with the film, technical and not moral, was the abysmal pace of the film. After the adrenaline and tension filled first act, the second and third bring the movie to a screeching halt – turning it’s focus towards political bureaucracy and physiotherapy sessions (which make Greengrass’ ‘real and gritty’ look seem suddenly out of place). Greengrass also decides to focus on the Prime Minister of Norway for a portion of the film. While it can be argued this falls in line with the “following the aftermath” attitude adopted by the film, it feels needless and tacked on in a movie that already feels bogged down by slow and repetitive scenes. This entire subplot could have been cut for time, which would have allowed the film to be a far more suitable length.
In addition to this, Greengrass chose to make the film in English, despite the entire story taking place on Norwegian soil, with Norwegian characters who spoke Norwegian, and not English. This was an odd choice, given Greengrass’ compulsive need to show every single element of this aggressively gruesome film in painful detail. While it can be said that he did to make the film more accessible, this also comes off as rather insensitive. The film is based on a Norwegian tragedy, one that affected countless Norwegian speaking families, yet they will not be able to view this movie in their native tongue, nor enjoy it without the use of subtitles. Perhaps the film should have been made in Norwegian with english subtitles out of respect for those the film depicts.
Overall, 22 July is a powerful yet tasteless mess of a film. It confuses violence and brutality with striking realism, and slow courtroom and recovery scenes with a strong message. It’s poorly paced, insensitive and seems aimless and meandering. As previously mentioned, 22 July is just hard to watch for many reasons.
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