22 July was released in 2018, a little more than seven years after the barbaric terrorist attack perpetrated by Anders Breivik, which claimed the lives of seventy-seven people, injured well over two hundred and – one way or another – affected the lives of all Norwegians. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass who has had a long-standing interest in exploring tragic and politically-relevant events in film (Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips), this film has attracted a rather lukewarm critical reception, which immediately invites a question as to why that was.
In fact, it shouldn’t take long for anyone to come up with at least a handful of potential reasons why 22 July doesn’t resonate in the same way Bloody Sunday does for example. First and foremost, the film is considerably longer; however, the running time on its own really shouldn’t be an issue for modern audiences which are perfectly accustomed to watching longer movies. Length isn’t the problem so much as the film’s structure may be because it attempts to do something more than just recount the events of that day in a way that discomforts the viewer by immersing them in media res. 22 July is trying to be a more complete account of what happened, how what happened happened, and how what happened impacted on what happened later. It is a more far-reaching attempt at telling this story which invariably outgrows what Greengrass has been known for dealing with.
The idea of Greengrass leaving his comfort zone isn’t inherently a bad idea; in fact, I think it’s commendable. However, I do believe that a good chunk of the reason why this film was branded as ‘barely mediocre’ by the vast majority of viewers has been seriously affected by their expectations. Paul Greengrass’ filmmaking has been more or less synonymous with tactile and immersive experiences, and for a good reason too. But 22 July only fits within these parameters partially and once the horror of the massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik are relayed with the filmmaker’s stunning sense of immediacy, the movie shifts gears and becomes something completely different. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be incorrect to see it as three films all rolled into one because it is equal parts a tactile horror attempting to recreate the unsettling atmosphere of what happened on the day, a searing psychological drama grappling with the aftermath and a courtroom thriller; all of which contribute to the seemingly excessive running time. If I were to use a comparison, 22 July fits within a single narrative what Patriots Day and Stronger handled separately.
Does it make it a bad movie? I don’t think so. It isn’t as familiar as one would expect it to be judging by who made it, but 22 July is far from a failure. I suppose one could potentially criticize (and some most certainly did) the decision to ‘americanize’ the film while simultaneously failing to leverage the film’s Norwegian cast. Granted, having to acclimate to the idea of watching native Norwegians speak English is a bit jarring and should not be required these days to ensure English-speaking viewers would sit through the film in its entirety, but something tells me the potential market for this movie would have been far smaller had the filmmakers opted to make the movie in Norwegian. And I suppose at least a good part of the reason for making this film in the first place was to invigorate a discussion about topics this story handles, such as a growing threat of right-wing terrorism in the Western societies, or even the notion of hostile actors treating our politeness and openness as a weakness to be used to their advantage.
This brings me to the third reason why 22 July does not work the way it could have, and it has to do with the way the film is written, which is a bit unwieldy to say the least. Granted, it is partially because Greengrass wanted to retain the scale of the book he was adapting and wanted it to be as complete an account as possible. However, it came at a cost because the film doesn’t feel cohesive in places, especially as it transitions between its three distinct modes of operation: from a docu-thriller to a prestige drama and then into a courtroom piece. Yes, it is a bit of a mess. Yes, it suffers from a surplus of primary characters. Yes, it occasionally feels as though it was written to elicit Oscar appeal. But then again, I distinctly remember following the aftermath of this terrorist attack, reading up on Breivik’s case and scratching my head at just how bizarre everything about it was. The film comes across as a mess because the whole story was messy, multi-pronged and diffuse and it wouldn’t have been possible to adapt it for the screen without making considerable alterations to what happened; which is a mine field in its own right.
Therefore, I think 22 July was always doomed to become a bit of a clunky mess because the story does not lend itself to mirror the immediate and abrupt horror of Bloody Sunday or to offer the viewer a cathartic reprieve like Captain Phillips did. Greengrass couldn’t have rolled credits when Breivik was captured because we all know the story did not end there. The victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre did not get their justice for many decades (and many of us would still think they have not received it yet anyway). In Breivik’s case, a measure of justice was dispensed and I would argue it was almost more important to relay just how much of a mess the trial was than it was to relay the events of the massacre. This is where we ought to have the conversation about how we deal with predators who mock our values and what it says about our society when we let them abuse it long after they were sentenced for their crimes.
This is why I equally agree with those who rightly criticize 22 July for being long, tonally jarring and messy – because it is all those things – while simultaneously I understand why it is the way it is and appreciate the fact it exists. For better or worse, this is one of those films that must exist and should be watched, if only to maintain the conversation it inspires; because nearly a decade later, we have not progressed enough to see what happened on that day and what led to those events as ‘a thing of the past’. In fact, the world is a breeding ground for more Breiviks and this realization sends shivers down my spine.