Oslo, Norway. It’s July 22, 2011. A lone terrorist takes a car full of explosives to the federal government building, sets it alight, then continues to a summer camp of young liberal politicos on the small island of Utøya. He then uses a high-powered rifle to ruthlessly hunt and kill. The day’s total: seventy-seven lives. Under arrest, Anders Behring Breivik claims his actions on behalf of a far-right group that stands for an apparently vast groundswell of anti-immigration sentiment.
Paul Greengrass’ July 22, a Netflix original film, is the second movie to be released this year about the true, horrific happenings of that day. But unlike the Norwegian-language film, this one is more concerned with the ensuing events, as survivors, and a grieving nation, unite to show their opposition to racist nationalistic causes.
Greengrass’ approach is one of verisimilitude. The cast (and most of the crew) is Norwegian, with the director asserting that “they know things he can’t about what the attack did to Norway’s sense of itself”. The camera is handheld and probing, documentary-style, and the dialogue tight and economical. The acting, too, is naturalistic (and excellent). The charismatic Jonas Strand Gravli plays Viljar Hanssen, the broken survivor at the heart of this reading of the story. Viljar suffers wounds he will never heal from, and his struggle to accept his trauma, and stand up to his attacker – to be, as his friend says, “both weak and strong at the same time” – represents that of all of Norway.
Paul Greengrass is an action director most known for his Jason Bourne movies, but he has always shown an affinity for docudramas, particularly about incidents that create far-ranging trauma. But a film like Captain Phillips seeks to develop some empathy, or at least understanding, about the motives of aggressors. July 22, on the other hand, is about the refusal to give credence to abhorrent ideologies. It feels like a sharp reproach to a leader like Trump who would not take a firm stance against white nationalists.
The terrorist Breivik demands his right to a fair trial, to a defence, and to publicly declare his positions. He is to be the self-appointed mouthpiece for all those who “see as he does”. He is given his rights, as is the law. But the choice for the survivors is whether to react to Breivik’s actions and televised statements with inflated paranoia and hatred, or with solidarity and equanimity. They must choose whether to remain open to the needs of all, or to be closed, and validate terrorism by giving it undue power over relationships and policies. During the period of Brexit, Trump, and Australia’s continuing lean to the right, this wise and compelling movie makes the challenge to all of us.
July 22 is streaming on Netflix now.