Representing EoM as press, contributor Hunter Heilman attended the first annual Film Fest 919 in Raleigh, NC, to review several films that are either in limited release now or are yet to be released. This review of 22 July is merely the first of several to come.
In the modern age, tragedies seem to happen every day and, as time goes on, the multitude of such events seems to grow higher and higher. With these tragedies, a few certainties are known in the aftermath: 1. Life goes on, whether you want it to or not, 2. There will eventually be another bigger, worse tragedy to eclipse the magnitude of this one, and last, but not least, 3. Paul Greengrass will make a movie about it someday.
After taking a bit of a break from real-life tragedy films to return to direct the tepid and forgettable Jason Bourne, Greengrass has again returned to his…shall we say…roots of adapting real-life tragedies into films with 22 July. From Bloody Sunday to United 93 to Captain Phillips, Greengrass’s stories of hope in the age of terrorism are perhaps some of the most well-known films of often touchy events. While it’s easy to laugh at Greengrass for fashioning a cottage industry out of real-life tragedy, there’s one large caveat to be found within all of these films: they’re all so great.
Greengrass joins the ranks of established filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón, Tamara Jenkins, David Mackenzie, Joel & Ethan Coen, and Orson Welles (seriously) making jumps to Netflix for their upcoming films. Some of the best parts about 22 July being a Netflix original is in the nature of the film itself; this isn’t particularly a film that studios would be jumping on. It’s a lesser-known tragedy stateside, with a completely unknown cast, and an R-rated approach that isn’t particularly serviceable for box-office returns. Yet, the true beauty of this Netflix original film doesn’t even come from the nature of it, but it’s incredible execution, made all the more harrowing by Netflix’s ability to let Greengrass just be Greengrass.
22 July recounts the events of July 22, 2011, when Anders Behring Brevik, a Norwegian white nationalist, set off a car bomb at the Prime Minister’s office in Oslo, Norway, then proceeded to open fire on a group of teenagers attending a Labour Party summer camp on the lake island of Utøya 25 miles west of Oslo. Brevik’s attacks killed 9 people in his Oslo bomb attack, and 69 during the Utøya shooting, wounding nearly 330 more. Luckily, 22 July doesn’t spend its entire runtime detailing these two events but focuses on vignettes of the fallout including its effect on the lawyer tasked with defending Brevik in court, the recovery of a wounded teenager, and the handling of the national crisis by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
22 July hits hard on so many levels, but none more than its portrayal of the events of the attacks, which reach a level of harrowing not seen on screen since the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Elephant. It’s an absolutely horrifying display of human evil that doesn’t even get portrayed this rawly in some of the best horror films. Make no mistake, the first act of 22 July is a horror film in the most baseline definition of the word. It provides a level of terror that hasn’t been felt in a film in an incredibly long time.
Greengrass approaches the attacks taking no prisoners, censoring none of its brutality for the comfort of viewers, and portraying the evils of white nationalism in its full, horrific nature. It’s a chaotic first act, but one that feels entirely respectful and cohesive. Greengrass, known for his “shaky cam” approach to action sequences, actually keeps the film pretty steady and clear for most of 22 July, which makes the film feel like an evolution for the established director in that he’s doing something new with his expected formula. It’s a more restrained approach for the filmmaker, and with something so brutally terrifying but also still so fresh in so many people’s minds, 22 July is all the better for his approach to it. Greengrass’s ability to surprise after such a career is something that keeps audiences coming back to his films time and time again with a renewed energy after seeing them. Even in his lesser films, Greengrass makes an effort to at least try something new, and it does him a great service here.
The rest of the film, detailing the intricacies of the aftermath from three different perspectives, is also a surprisingly riveting look inside the effects of terrorism. It slows the film down to a degree where you have to wonder how Greengrass is to fill the remaining 100 minutes of the film with material following its slam-bang opening act, but after such an assault on the senses, Greengrass opens the emotional center of the film, one of a million different emotions, ranging from heartbreak, to rage, to optimism, down all the way to hopelessness and back. Each storyline that the film focuses on is a different approach to the attack that frames it in a different, but complementary light compared to the others.
A big fear as the film went on was that its return to the storyline following Brevik would begin to, even if unintended, cast some sort of glory upon the attacker. Surprisingly enough, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Brevik, committing the attack to take Norway back to the white population and stop the spread of Islam across Europe, also gets his due as an egotistical, lying, hateful human being without any real redeeming qualities. Greengrass still makes him a three-dimensional character in an interesting way. With the help of Brevik’s actor, Anders Danielsen Lie, Greengrass creates this sort of strange enigma of a character in crafting a man always on display, always with something to prove, whether it be for his internet friends, potential partners, or the whole world. Brevik is a man who never takes his guard down in his views, creating an artificial barrier of no entry for the outside world. Greengrass never gives the time to see what the “real” Brevik was like as the cold, proud, and hateful Brevik is the real person he is within his own mind.
The only real complaint about 22 July is that Greengrass’ free approach to the film with Netflix could have afforded him the option to actually shoot the film in the Norwegian language. With Netflix being more accommodating to multi-language formats and the fact it would avoid the “foreigners speaking in English with Norwegian accents” trope, the film would have been able to approach a small detail of the film with a bit more authenticity and dexterity. It would have also made the film a better Oscar prospect in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
With or without expectations, 22 July is something else entirely. It’s a brutally harrowing film that explores far more than the violence perpetrated over the course of a single afternoon. It explores the years-long ordeal it took for the survivors to find any semblance of peace, for the attacker to receive any semblance of justice, and for the government to find any semblance of reorganization after such an attack. Greengrass approaches the film in a different way than his previous films of similar nature and, because of this, we get a more cohesive, moving, and memorable film that is burned into my memory forever.
And I can’t say that I’m mad at it for doing so, at all.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
22 July is in select theaters and available for streaming on Netflix starting October 12, 2018.