Approaching real terrorism dramatically is difficult subject matter for filmmakers to handle properly.
Whether it’s a faithful, authentic retelling like Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 To Paris” with the real heroes on screen or a more loose depiction like Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day,” there’s a great deal of care given to what and how the terror of catastrophic events and the terrorists who commit them are portrayed on screen.
Writer/director Paul Greengrass takes a wholistic approach with his latest endeavor “22 July,” a sobering docudrama about right-wing extremism in Norway in the middle of 2011.
A lone man, bent on ending Norway’s immigration entirely, bombed the prime minister’s office and then struck hours later, killing 69 students at a summer camp on a remote island outside Oslo.
Greengrass refuses to shy away from the violence in his film, taking a stark 20 minute sequence to methodically recreate the carnage of Anders Behring Breivik from multiple perspectives.
Audiences are thrust on both sides of the rifle barrel, watching helplessly as teens are gunned down with chilling callousness. “22 July” does not glorify the attack by any means, but the clinical approach Greengrass presents may come across as offensive to some viewers.
There’s a stoic precision to Greengrass’s work as he abandons his signature shaky-cam cinematography made famous in the Jason Bourne franchise and “Captain Phillips.” Shots move crisply from point to point with rigor, less in a clinical approach than a militant efficiency.
All the while, Greengrass draws out incredible performances from a talented Nordic cast led by Jonas Strand Gravli as Viljar, one of the teenage survivors, and Anders Danielsen Lie as Breivik.
Gravli measures his performance in segments, flowing seamlessly from popular and carefree to panicked to emotionally broken as viewers watch Viljar over the course of the film.
After the attack, Gravli turns in his best work, hiding Viljar’s pain but failing to shut out the aftershocks he constantly replays in his mind.
The detachment in Lie’s expert portrayal of Breivik chills viewers to the bone in a terrifying, yet mesmerizing way. Lie achieves a strange glazed-over façade as if Breivik is maintaining some sort of trance that is both eerie and feels genuine to the man.
“22 July” is a well acted ensemble film with solid turns from the entire cast, but especially Jon Øigarden as Breivik’s reluctant attorney conflicted between defending his client and confronting the atrocities before him.
The film wanders between redemptive drama and legal procedural throughout its second half, but this never feels reductive or long-winded.
Greengrass has made a career of finding political commentary in his cinema and this extends to “22 July” as well, but without the biting viciousness of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
Netflix has given “22 July” one of the company’s biggest theatrical releases and while that may translate to award season eligibility, Greengrass’s film will probably be shut out.
If the film had been made in Norwegian instead of English, it certainly would have had a good chance at a foreign language Oscar nom but would still be far behind Alfonso Cuaron’s expected Oscar frontrunner “Roma,” a Netflix film debuting in December.
“22 July” is a difficult watch, especially all at once. Perhaps Netflix is the perfect venue for the film, allowing for viewers to pause or skip ahead if necessary. It’s certainly one of Greengrass’s better films and an important one at that.