At 3.25pm on 22nd July 2011 thirty two year old Anders Breivik detonated a home made bomb in the Government Quarter in Oslo, then he drove twenty five miles to a busy Labour Party run Summer Camp on the bank of Lake Tyri and, posing as a police officer, opened fire on the staff and holidaying teenagers. By the time he was arrested he had killed eight people in the capital and sixty eight by the lake as well as injuring three hundred and nineteen others, sixty seven of them seriously. After a public trial he was convicted of mass murder and jailed for the maximum twenty one years. Breivik’s made it clear that his rationale for the attacks was his desire to fight back against what he described as a forced multiculturalism in Norway and Europe and the perceived spread of Islam. He said that in ‘assassinating children’ he was ‘hitting the elite where it hurt’.
Immediately after these events all of the major political parties in the country saw a surge in membership, particularly those with young people’s groups, and Norway’s stance on welcoming immigrants and those from other countries was very much strengthened. Alarmingly though support for far right groups such as such as Stop the Islamisation (SIAN) and the Norwegian Defence League (NDL) also grew significantly following Breivik’s actions and seven years later, while what he did is seen by everyone as unimaginably abhorrent, the ideological ideas that inspired him have actually become much more common place.
In Austria, for example, the right wing Freedom Party have been growing in popularity for years and now have the largest share of the vote. In Sweden the Neo-Nazi rooted Nationalist Party have not quite taken a share of the power but have kept the political competition at bay and have definite king maker status if and when it comes to a coalition there. The similarly aligned Alternative für Deutschland organisation are now the largest opposition party in Germany and have just taken a position in the State Assembly for the first time. Here in Britain, while UKIP seem to have had their brief time in the sun, it is clear that small minded racialism they pushed is more than a little bit responsible for the ridiculous mess we are currently in with Brexit. Then there is America where they have elected a bigoted president who went on record to say there were very fine people in the frighteningly well supported extreme white supremacist movement who had just injured over thirty people who stood in opposition against them, one of them fatally. Not only is Breivik and what he stood for not distant history, it’s not even history. That is why the story of how Norway stood up to him and his ideals has to be told now and that is why Paul Greengrass has made this film.
As you would expect after United 93, Greengrass’ movie about one of the highjacked planes on September 11th, Captain Phillips and Bloody Sunday (he also made a little known TV drama about the murder of Stephen Lawrence ) the way the writer/director has relayed this narrative is respectful and sensitive. As with most of those previous films he was worked closely with the families involved and in recognition of the fact that this is one particular country’s story he has used an entirely Norwegian cast and crew. As with all of his similar work 22 July is also chiefly focused on the ordinary people who fell prey to the violence and the heroism with which they responded.
This said Breivik himself is definitely front and centre as a character. Much of the film concerns the court case and the rehabilitation of one of the victims but Breivik is also given a clear voice. This is entirely deliberate. In the same way that the authorities at the time made the difficult decision to let Breivik speak at his trial, a speech that he calls his third attack, so too has Greengrass given his words a place. This is hard to watch but if you ignore his rhetoric it is easier to see him as just a monster or some kind of psycho and to so do without consideration of his part in a larger movement is ignoring the problem.
Crucially we also get to see the bomb and the shootings played out on screen. There is nothing gratuitous here but Greengrass does not back away from the violence. As with the film Into the Fade earlier this year, the audience is not allowed to disconnect from the horror of terrorism. It is as if Greengrass is respectfully saying, ‘I’m sorry but you need to see this’. As a regular film viewer there is nothing here the nature of which I’ve not seen several times before and actually this raises an interesting point too. There are many films that feature gun violence as entertainment, even toward teenagers, and watching this on film when you know it really happened is heartbreaking and discomforting. It does hit home that this is not something that should ever really be trivialised. It is not mentioned in the film but in reality Breivik actually stated that he learnt marksmanship through playing computer games and watching movies.
In several respects then 22 July is a wake up call to the state of things in 2018. This is never heavy handed and in places the film is actually quite slow. Certainly it doesn’t maintain the tension like Captain Phillips. The sense of unease and anger never leaves you though. The performances are all strong, especially from Anders Danielsen Lie who has the unenviable task of portraying Breivik and Jonas Strand Gravili who essentially carries the film as recovering victim turned persecution victor Viljar Hanssen. In the end this it isn’t just a film that you should see, it’s that you really kind of have to.
Is this one for the kids?
I believe that in many respects Paul Greengrass made this film for young people. This is one of the reasons he chose to make the film with Netflix. Your average teen is never going to kick back with this as they would Stranger Things or The Good Place but there is life out there outside of boxsetting and we need future generations to help us fix it. They’re not going to be able to do that if they can’t see the ever widening cracks.
The Ripley Factor:
I’m not going to debate the gender politics of this film, although there are strong female characters in the shape of Viljar’s mother and his fellow survivor Lara. What is relevant here is that in his manifesto Breivik sited two things as being responsible for the degradation of democracy and society in his eyes. One was Islam and the other was feminism. There is plenty in the world right now that shows the need to fight for both (Trump again) and in this light 22 July is a movie about all of the venomous, encroaching prejudice that we’d hoped we that as a species had grown beyond decades ago. Tragically we haven’t.