22 July: After the Action
Directed by Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”, “United 93”), “22 July” recounts the 2011 terror attacks in Norway which left 77 dead, hundreds injured, and an entire nation devastated.
I have watched it half a dozen times.
Let’s get this straight: this film is by no means easy to watch. It is heartbreaking, to say the least, and will undoubtedly anger a number of viewers given the true story subject matter and the current political climate of the world. But that’s exactly why you should watch it.
There is a myriad of discussion to be had when picking apart a film like “22 July” and I welcome them on my Instagram live chats or in person. For the sake of this post, I want to talk about Paul Greengrass’ decision to dedicate more of the running time of this movie to the aftermath of the attacks than on the attacks themselves.
Previous projects undertaken by Greengrass based on historic events have focused on a narrow span of time building to a sort of crescendo of action with either a happy or tragic resolution but wrapped up shortly after all the same. Greengrass changes course this time by containing this action to the first thirty minutes or so. What I appreciate most about this decision is that it respects the fact that for those who survive the trauma and for those of us watching from a distance, it is only after the shooting stops, after the smoke has cleared, after the attackers are dead or apprehended that the battle to find answers truly begins. Answers to the questions: Why did this happen? What would lead someone to do such a thing? How does anyone heal from this? How you go on?
Before you go on reading the rest of this post: SPOILERS AHEAD.
There are four main perspectives that Greengrass focuses on during the movie in an attempt to answer those questions: Geir Lippestad (Breivik’s lawyer), Jens Stoltenberg (Prime Minister of Norway), Viljar Hanssen (victim), and Anders Behring Breivik (terrorist).
When it comes to Geir Lippestad, I am slightly disappointed. This character represents not only the rule of law but should also have symbolized the collective people of Norway who were not directly affected by the attacks as victims or their loved ones. As the chosen lawyer of Breivik, Lippestad has no choice but to represent a man he does not agree with. Ideologically, as a member of the Labour Party, he stands by the belief Breivik is entitled to the same rights as anyone else. He takes this as an opportunity to set an example and in doing so, discovers resentment even among those claiming to have those same ideals. Unfortunately, this does not come off as clearly as it could have. Whether it was the decision of Greengrass to have Jon Øigarden play Lippestad as stoic or not, I do not know. But I certainly think the minutes we do have with him on screen could have had more of an emotional impact if there were moments of intimate tenderness between himself and his family. There are moments where he interacts with them and we witness the negative effects his beliefs are having on his family but they’re just kind of… there.
If you haven’t seen the film – or even if you have – you might wonder why Greengrass would have followed the Prime Minister beyond the attack on the government building where he worked. What he represents is the government’s response to the attacks showing both the positive and negative aspects of their lack of preventative measures and their reaction one the bomb went off. This is also a personal issue for him having been a youth member of the Labour Party and been to Utøya as a teen himself which they mention when we are first introduced to him in the movie. Having been one of Breivik’s intended targets as the leader of his nation, he carries a significant amount of guilt. This guilt is something we see other characters struggle with to varying degrees and for different reasons as they battle with all that could have and should have been done despite the unforeseen, and until that point, unimaginable circumstances.
We spend most of our time, rightly so, with Viljar as he starts his long road to recovery after being found near death with five gunshot wounds on the rocky beach of Utøya Island both physically and mentally. But it’s not just him who is affected by the events of that day. Of course, it isn’t. The lives of everyone in his family are forever changed, as well. Viljar’s mother who was in the middle of her campaign at the start of the film becomes mayor of their town. While she insists that she and her family remain active in the legal proceedings against Breivik, her husband calls into question whether or not their engagement in politics is what put their children in danger in the first place since both Viljar and his younger brother Torje were attending a summer camp for youth of the nation’s Labour Party. The division between family members is also evident in the interaction between the two young men as Torje pulls away from Viljar, isolating himself. There is a quiet but heart-wrenching exchange between the two of them through a closed door that reminds us not all wounds bleed – not all scars are visible.
How do we begin to discuss the coverage of Anders Behring Breivik? There is an attempt at understanding the psychology of this mass murderer, to what might have led him to commit these crimes. And when I say I understand, I do not mean that it is understandable in that I have sympathy for him. What I mean is that, unfortunately, we’ve seen this before, and could very well see it again. Breivik attempts to depict himself as a model Norwegian citizen with a typical family dynamic despite his parents' divorce. Fact checks by his own legal team prove otherwise. So, instead of successfully normalizing his upbringing and thus normalizing his radical political views, we discover that this is a man who could feasibly suffer from issues of abandonment and dissociation - both factors that would make someone desperate for connection and belonging. One scene that stands out to me occurs about midway through the film. Lippestad goes to visit Breivik’s mother who says that when he was a boy, Breivik was clever, kind, and loved affection. Now, I’m not trying to get Freudian and blame it all on the mother. What I do want to do is draw a connection between that desire for affection to a later statement made by the leader of a right-wing extremist group that makes it clear that people in a mental state similar to Breivik are their targets for recruitment. Groups such as his, give them that sense of kinship. They give him the feeling that he’s not alone - and gives us the terrifying realization of that same fact. As he tells Lippestad, we can’t even see them.
There’s a recurring idea in these interconnecting storylines that one side will beat the other; that someone has to win in this battle of ideologies. Breivik believes his violent acts will call others to arms. However, we see from the moment he starts shooting, the response of his “enemy” and later the response of his perceived allies. Targeted as the leaders of tomorrow, the teens on Utøya protected each other even when their lives were on the line. They answered his hatred with love and selflessness. Those that survived have millions on their side to continue that fight today while Breivik spends the rest of his life alone in prison. The answer to the question of who wins and to the questions regarding how to heal, how to go on, lie not in how you destroy your opponent.