22 July Delivers Standout Performances and a Strong Message

Norway was a different country after the 22nd of July, 2011. That morning, 77 people, mostly children, were murdered by a right wing extremist in a bomb attack on the office of the Prime Minister, and a shooting spree at the summer camp of the social democratic Labour Party youth camp. Seven years later, the attacks are still a focus of controversy within Norwegian society.

In his most recent outing, the "Bourne Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass can’t be faulted for being ambitious in his attempt to bring this massacre to life. Portraying not only the brutal attacks and its aftermath, Greengrass makes a serious effort to analyze the psychology of the perpetrator, Anders Breivik; as well as a young victim, Viljar Hanssen, who has to learn to overcome serious physical and psychological trauma.

This is where “22 July” is at its strongest. Powered by stunning performances from an all Norwegian cast, the film is a powerful character study. Anders Danielsen Lie is undeniably fantastic as Breivik. Like Breivik himself, Lie is a chameleon, able to go from the emotion to emotion without skipping a beat; he can go from menacing to pathetic in a moment. In addition to making us revolt at Breivik’s cowardly actions, Lie also makes us realize the true emotional heart of the film: that Breivik is a sad, politically isolated individual who could never attempt to leave an impact on history in any other way.

Equally fantastic is Jonas Strand Gravli, who plays one of the victims of the attack, Hanssen. Early in the film, Breivik shoots Hanssen multiple times, costing him his eye, a few fingers and nearly his life. Gravli, despite wearing a glass eye throughout the film to simulate Hanssen’s injuries, brings incredible intensity just through his stares. He perfectly channels Hanssen’s deep and understandable anger to the surface in an incredible English language debut. Especially gut wrenching is when Gravli portrays Hanssen's physical therapy sessions. This is a young man who has lost nearly everything and who will never be the same again, but who understands that he has to be strong enough to testify against Breivik in court. Gravli makes sure the audience understands that. While the rest of the cast are quite good, the film is not without its faults.

“22 July”'s now on Netflix is an admirable attempt to be as objective as possible when the difficult position of not being able to fully explore the deeper questions that Breivik’s terrorism brought to the surface in Norwegian society. In the aftermath of the attacks, there was wide debate around issues like the police state's failure to stop Breivik, the legacy of a major social democratic party becoming increasingly pro-capitalist, what type of punishment should Breivik have received, and the question of where Breivik lies within the larger political right. These are all hinted at but never explored in detail.

With this being noted, Greengrass does give the film a strong anti-fascist and pro-democratic message. This is best exemplified by defense attorney Geir Lippestad’s, portrayed sympathetically by Jon Øigarden, incredibly moving final dialogue with Breivik: “And we will beat you. My children and their children, they will beat you.” The film shows its cards here and states that a society united around economic equality and social justice will always be safe from fascism; a message particularly relevant to the current political landscape.