With the gruesome 22 July, Paul Greengrass, that expert in making art from recent historical violence, reduces the terrorist attacks that rocked Norway in 2011 to a crass movie parable: Here’s the everyman who overcomes considerable pain and helps put a deadly extremist in jail. Crafting his pseudo-realistic account of the crimes and trial of anti-Islamic murderer Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), writer-director Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, Bloody Sunday) examines the attacks through the pinhole lens of post-disaster trauma.
In a spate of bombings and attacks, Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 209. Greengrass focuses on one victim, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who lost three fingers and his right eye during Breivik’s attack on a secluded Utøya youth camp.
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Other supporting characters — like sullen Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), whose office is bombed, and Breivik’s ambivalent defense attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who receives death threats — are also shown to suffer emotionally. But it’s Hanssen’s trauma that gets plumbed, his gory wounds and startling PTSD-like flashbacks overshadowing the film’s otherwise unmemorable consideration of Breivik’s killings. (He also bombed the prime minister’s Oslo office less than two hours before he shot up Utøya.)
In an early scene, Hanssen delivers an ostensibly rousing speech championing multicultural diversity to an auditorium full of his fellow students. Minutes later, Breivik denounces “Marxist” traitors and shoots Hanssen five times. Hanssen’s blood-soaked, twitching body evokes the gallons of fake blood that Paul Verhoeven spilled on a distraught-looking animatronic puppet that stood in for Peter Weller during his Christ-like hero’s Robocop death scene. 22 July’s sickening dramatization of the Utøya slaughter — filmed with Greengrass’ typically jarring handheld camerawork — concludes with a relatively clear, seconds-long close-up of Hanssen’s face. All of Breivik’s other victims are reduced to frantic body language and indistinct screams.
Greengrass then juxtaposes Hanssen’s uneasy road to recovery with Breivik’s unnervingly calm preparation for his trial, an emotionally charged event that Greengrass reduces to a contest of clashing personalities and ideologies: Breivik’s stoic fearmongering vs. Hanssen’s tearful optimism. Greengrass’ Hannibal Lecter Lite version of Breivik prepares (with Lippestad’s reluctant help) a speech about the “atrocious” (Breivik’s words) necessity of his crimes — a speech that he eventually delivers during his trial.
By contrast, Greengrass’ martyr-like version of Hanssen prepares to testify against Breivik by overcoming a gauntlet of adversities, including grueling physical therapy sessions and an urge toward suicide. Unfortunately, there’s nothing enlightening about the pained scenes in which Gravli, as Hanssen, falls on his side as he struggles to walk without a cane, or gags when he, recovering from brain surgery, has a breathing tube ripped out of his mouth. Instead, these re-enactments elicit the same cattle prod-reflex winces as gory torture scenes in already dated post-9/11 horror films like Hostel, Saw and The Devil’s Rejects. But there’s nothing else in 22 July that you can’t find in a good book or newspaper article about Hanssen and his fellow survivors.