Twelve years ago, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 transformed a real-life tragedy—the United 93 hijacking on September 11, 2001—into a visceral, you-were-there thrill ride. The film was, seemingly by design, tasteless propaganda aimed at generating blood-boiling rage toward a faceless and unknowable enemy. With the no less morbid and hollow 22 July, Greengrass takes on the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead. While the filmmaker devotes some time to the motives and psychological state of the lone-wolf terrorist at the center of this film, the resulting portrait of Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) reveals little more than a megalomaniacal loner with insurmountable mommy issues.
After an opening scene where Breivik meticulously crafts numerous bombs and loads them, along with an arsenal of weapons, into an unmarked van, Greengrass cuts to a drone shot of Breivik driving on a road surrounded by a vast forest. As if the carnage to come is somehow in doubt, the ominous music that plays over this image primes us to buckle up for what’s sure to be a suspenseful series of sequences just around the bend. That a drop from John Williams’s Jaws score wouldn’t be out of place on this film’s soundtrack goes to show how tactlessly Greengrass milks tragedy for titillation.
As Greengrass introduces various high school students attending a Workers’ Youth League summer camp, he deploys his familiar handheld camera to capture the innocent kids playing soccer, oblivious to the implacable fate that’s about to fall upon them. Crosscut with this moment of bonding is Breivik setting up and detonating the bomb outside of a government building in Oslo. In an even more egregious and hackneyed piece of editing, Greengrass times this explosion and the subsequent evacuation of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) to land just after one promising youngster, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), at the summer camp delivers a speech about what he would do if he were the PM. Sadly, such crude and gauche juxtapositions are par for the course throughout 22 July.
When Breivik makes his way to Utøya and swiftly unloads clip after clip of ammo, he’s filmed in wide shots as he calmly prowls through the island’s forest and dozens of teens frantically scatter in terror. As the pulsating score drives the horrific action, Greengrass doubles down on loading this extended sequence with cheap suspense, crafting scenes that deliberately toy with the audience’s expectations of who will live and who will die.
It’s then that 22 July shifts to the aftermath of the attack and that a futile exercise in re-enactment gives way to blunt moralizing as Breivik is propped in blunt contrast to Viljar. In following Breivik, Greengrass highlights how—gasp—humanely the young man was treated by police, stretching out a scene where the shooter asks for medical treatment for a finger he says he cut on one of his victim’s skull fragments. It’s not only a needlessly graphic detail that reeks of tabloidesque reportage, but is indicative of Greengrass’s through line of criticizing the Norwegian government for being far too easy on Breivik. The film’s moralizing is consistently simplistic, and never more so when Greengrass seemingly ponders why Breivik should be treated any better than an animal while Viljar struggles to live and regain the ability to walk.
By the end, 22 July shifts gears again to become a traditional courtroom drama, though this final act still abounds in ridiculous juxtapositions, such as scenes of Viljar sweating his way through a brutal rehab intercut with Breivik breezing through the early stretches of his trial. All this leads, of course, to a final showdown, though it isn’t so much between two men as it is between embodiments of good and evil. Indeed, it’s here that it becomes unmistakable that Greengrass is averse to moral grays, and that Breivik and Viljar were never meant to come across as real people, only pawns in a morality play that simplistically and conspicuously argues only for eye-for-an-eye retribution. Ironically, in attempting to expose the idiocy of an alt-right murderer and the house of cards upon which his beliefs stand, Greengrass reveals the stubbornness of his own stances on morality and catharsis.