22 July, in many ways is the equivalent of 9/11. Go to anyone in Norway, they’re well aware of the date. It’s the day when a lone gunman used a car bomb to demolish a building and then went to a children’s camp to slaughter them. The terrorist was Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), and his sole reason for killing these children was because they were off-springs of the upper class who were letting immigrants into the country.
The film is told in three acts: the attack, the pre-trial preparation, and the testimony. Each segment reveals the evolution of terrorism and the society’s response to said attacks. During the attack, the response is reactionary as power is held by the terrorist. During the trial, the public gains much of that power back. However, as a trial stretches on and as the event moves further-and-further away, it’s the victims who are often left to live with those tragic memories.
The repository of those memories can be found in Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), the main subject of the film, his brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen), and Lara (Seda Witt), who were all present on the island. Much of the film is them grappling with traumatic memories, fixing their broken bodies and hearts, finding reasons to live, and wondering why they survived. Greengrass’s film, more than any other, is solely about survivor’s guilt and their responsibility.
22 July at its core, is about responsibility. It questions what responsibility the government has to the attacked and the attackers. It also questions what responsibility the survivors have to the diseased. The film is a slow burn, as much of its action occurs in the first half an hour. But as has been stated, 22 July isn’t about the attack itself. Rather it is the aftermath, which is refreshing. For instance, most 9/11 films speak solely of the event. Mostly because so much transpired on that day. There are almost no films that hold that even in the background, and the aftermath in the foreground. Greengrass’s approach is a more humanistic, yet scholarly accounting.
There’s a balance, especially in his camera work between the intimate and the distant. His decision to use heavy foregrounding, where the subject is always in focus, while the background is not, gives us that intimate approach. Greengrass doesn’t want the viewer distracted by background activity. Instead, he wants the sole focus to be on the victim, the terrorist, the lawyer, those affected in that very moment.
And in that intimacy, he does find distance. Greengrass’s background is as a journalist and that interest and approach is present within Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), Breivik’s lawyer. Greengrass makes it a point to find the ordinary figure, to find the man who’s just doing his job, and to say that he has a story too. In many respects, Lippestad is the director himself. He’s there to gather information, to create a story around that information, and to present it. Much as he may hate his client, much as he may empathize with the victims, he has a duty to be fair. It’s a precarious line for him and the director to walk in a film that demands catharsis.
22 July is also filled with note-perfect performances from its supporting cast, from Ola G. Furuseth as the Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, to Thorbjørn Harr and Maria Bock as Viljar’s father and mother, respectively. They are the figures around the event, the politician who feels that it’s his duty to find where the government failed, the parents who just want to move on. They fill each role and perspective, and become a mirror of own reactions after a tragedy.
Greengrass’s film comes at the right time. In a moment, where immigration is now a dirty word. In a moment, where borders are expected to be locked. 22 July takes us back into a not too distant future, when such talk of taking back one’s country, of open racism, would have been on the fringes of the political spectrum. Instead, they are now the mainstream. And much like the journalist Greengrass has always been, he offers a dry perspective, in a world that’s sorely lacking it.