22 July (Paul Greengrass, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
It takes a certain kind of masochist to embrace the cinematic adaptation of a horrific real-life event. This does not make Paul Greengrass (Jason Bourne), the director of 22 July – a retelling of Norway’s deadly 2011 homegrown terrorist attack– necessarily a sadist, but it should give the viewer pause before starting this over-two-hour exploration of the event and its aftermath. Certainly, Greengrass has traveled such territory before, with Captain Phillips and, especially, United 93 – each based on real-life tragedies – so maybe he does enjoy the misery. However, he leavens the grief with a message of hope, so if one can stomach the murder and trauma within, 22 July ends as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Perhaps, then, Greengrass was the very man for the job … if the job needed doing, that is (you be the judge).
I will not name the right-wing killer here; he gets enough attention in the movie, itself (one of its less appealing qualities). Here is a brief recap, however: on July 22, 2011, a murderous psychopath, believing he was righteously striking a blow against an increasingly multicultural Europe, killed 77 people in Norway, 8 of them via a bomb in the capital city of Oslo and 69, via shooting, on the nearby island of Utoya, where the underage youth of the nation’s political leaders were attending a summer camp. We follow these incidents for the movie’s first third, reliving each death in unfortunate close-up. It is not pleasant, though masterfully realized.
From there, we continue to the arrest and trial of the killer, and the national debate over what kind of defense should be allowed such a man. Norway has no death penalty, so the question comes down to whether or not the perpetrator should be allowed to plead insanity. Meanwhile, survivors and their relatives wrestle over how to prevent the terrorist from showboating in court. While the film clearly does not endorse any part of its antagonist’s savage ideology, it does, in my opinion, allow him too much screen time. He is simply not worth immortalizing in this way. Yes, we need to understand, as a species, how Nazis come to be, but we do not need to offer them any kind of platform.
Where the movie is far more successful is in its presentation of a country with a culture that allows robust debate on the nature of crime and consequence. It’s also nice to see a leader – here, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (now Secretary General of NATO) – unafraid to admit mistakes and to accept responsibility for those mistakes. In addition, the Norwegian cast is uniformly excellent, bringing deep commitment to their roles. although I wish the film were in their native tongue, with subtitles, rather than in English, to allow them even greater facility of performance. Overall, this is a worthy, if very grim project. Watch at your own risk.
[22 July premieres on Netflix today.]