I’m not sure anyone could consider themselves a “fan” of Paul Greengrass films. The man behind such gut-punching real-life dramas as 2002’s Bloody Sunday, 2006’s United 93, and 2013’s Captain Phillips, Greengrass specializes in recreating atrocious events in world history, giving them the context and attention they require. To a film, they’re incredibly difficult to watch, but invariably they tell the story very, very well—serving as a document of the times and the events that changed a respective population forever.
Greengrass’ latest, 22 July, follows suit, documenting the 2011 terror attacks in Norway that ended the lives of eight people in an Oslo bombing and 69 more, mostly teenagers, at a summer camp massacre on nearby Utøya island. Both attacks were perpetrated single-handedly by self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist Anders Breivik.
Greengrass, who also wrote the screenplay (from Åsne Seierstad’s book One of Us), splits the film into three distinct chapters, beginning with the attacks, which happen barely ten minutes in and unfold in nearly real time. He then splits the balance of the film between the rehab of one of the victims, and Breivik’s legal proceedings.
The survivor at the center of 22 July is Viljar Hanssen (a phenomenal Jonas Strand Gravli), who was seventeen years old when Breivik shot him five times, including once in the head. During several hours of surgery, doctors were able to save his life, but some shrapnel was too close to his brain stem to risk removal. The film shows almost every detail of Hanssen’s recovery, often excruciating detail, as it paints a poignant picture of all the lives shattered that day, through the eyes of him and his family.
On the flip side is Breivik (an equally compelling Anders Danielsen Lie), who committed the attacks with cold, eerie precision in the name of Norwegian nationalism and later commented in court, “I acknowledge the actions, but not guilt. I plead necessity.” Greengrass is careful in his presentation of Breivik, giving just enough airtime to the man’s unsettling beliefs without making 22 July seem like a platform for them. Context, of course, is everything, and as misguided (or, frankly, frightening) as Breivik’s ideology was, it would have been a glaring mistake to present the film without sharing it.
Greengrass also wisely shows restraint during the presentation of the massacre on Utøya island. Known for his hand-held, jittery filming style, Greengrass presents the harrowing, nightmarish events very simply, fully aware that the mayhem of the moment was enough. We still see it through the eyes of the students, as we crouch behind rocks and peek from behind trees, but we’re not tossed around at the same time.
22 July is not an easy watch by any means, but it’s an important one—a clear, accurate, and relevant recounting of the worst terror attack in modern European history. And Greengrass proves once again he’s the man (perhaps the only man) for the job.