Within a few weeks of each other two movies were released that covered the terrorist attack in Norway in 2011. ’22 July’ was the one that catered to an English speaking audience and had some Hollywood production names behind it. At a lengthy two hours twenty minutes though, the majority of the film deals with the aftermath of the day from different perspectives to varying degrees of success.
The disasters faced
A terrorist attack that firstly bombed a government building which allowed the terrorist to board an island camp and kill 77 people over the course of the day.
Being based on a real event, 22 July tries to be as low key as possible with its depiction of the actual event itself. Brievik drives a van of fertiliser explosives up to a government building and makes his way to Utoya Island as it explodes, killing several. Utoya Island is host to a Labour Summer Camp where young adults are taking part in exercises to help them understand government leadership challenges and ideas. Brievik boards the island and murders plenty of teens before being caught, arrested and taken away. One of the teens shot multiple times is Viljar, who barely survives and his life hangs in the balance.
From here the story spears into three parts that weave in and out of each other. Viljar’s recovery is front and centre – a truly astonishing recovery and the issues that gives not just for him, but for his brother who survived without injury (just) and his parents. Secondly, Brievik himself spends a lot of time trying to run rings around the establishment from after his arrest through to his sentencing. This causes strain for his lawyer Gier who is in an impossible situation of defending a man who is frankly indefensible. Thirdly, we also see glimpses into government during this time and whilst the enquiry and reports are very much kept on the periphery of the film itself, it’s done with dignity and respect for the most part.
These three threads weave back together for the final section of the film which is the court hearing. Victims testify and the lengthy hearing rolls on towards its finale where Viljar himself has the strength and will to go to court. Speaking of how Brievik had taken away a part of his life but that in doing so he realised he chooses to live life means that we will win against Brievik and all terrorist attacks. It’s pay off is a message of hope, determination and spirit throughout all the tough and awful times everyone had faced.
Why is it worth watching?
Whilst based on true events, this isn’t an exacting replay of events. The actual shooting section is covered in about 10 minutes and there was a bit of an outcry at the time of release that some key details were left out. These include Brievik phoning the police to offer himself up for surrender, swimmers trying to escape the island and other side stories. Whilst I understand people may want to see their section of their ordeal represented – this film, much like the Impossible does, brings its focus down onto just a few central characters. Like other huge events, it’s often overwhelming to grasp the full nature of a tragedy and sometimes a larger focus can actually mean less empathy in psychology terms. It’s a decision that I think works for the way this film is put together – but that doesn’t mean there is a right or wrong way to have made this film. The other film made of this event ‘Utoya’, which I haven’t seen, goes down a more visceral by the minute account of the attack and both styles have their merits.
Whereas the film is completely front-loaded in terms of tension, horror and tragedy, I found myself switching emotional gears several times throughout the remainder of the film. Firstly I went to anger and internal rage as Brievik joked and made light of his attacks. I’ve no idea if this all happened but it certainly enraged me. I then switched to admiration, inspiration and an internal rooting for Viljar, Torje and Lara as each of them struggled with survivors guilt. Torje, the brother, doesn’t get as much screen time as I’d have liked but his story is a complex one of survival but feeling left out, unloved but also responsible for Viljar’s injuries. Where I think the film falls down is the final section. The court hearing doesn’t quite have the gravitas that I’d hoped for. The build-up to it all was far more intense than the court section itself. There’s an attempt at heroic humour and it doesn’t land well. Thankfully, Viljar’s story, in particular, resonates so boldly with the viewer that you don’t mind some of the side steps that don’t work quite so well with the lawyer or the government. In fact, I’d say its actually Gier the lawyer who gets the better ending, by echoing what everyone would love to say to all terrorists. You will never win.
Again, looking at a film that trades off courtroom drama with a disaster – Sully Miracle on the Hudson goes back and forth between events rather than going in chronological order. It’s also a tight 90 minutes – this is 142 minutes. I wasn’t bored in the slightest, but it felt like each act was designed to make me slow my breathing and mind down further.
One thing I cannot fault is the acting. Everyone is speaking in English, not specifically their native language, yet they all carry off a vast array of emotions with ease. Add to that the camera work which follows Paul Greengrass’s previous works United 93 and Captain Philips – a grim realness and bleached colour palette – and you have a powerful combination.
Not that it matters for a real-life depiction but the explosive bomb sequence is done realistically with lots of on-screen carnage that reminds me of Omaha and 9/11.
Viljar utterly owns the film as a person and is perfectly played by Jonas Strand Gravli. A truly inspirational story of recovery whilst taking all your demons with you too.
‘I…I survived… and I choose to live.’ Viljar Hanssen
Three memorable moments
- Seeing the Utoya camp leader sailing the boat towards Brievik thinking he is there to look after them but knowing exactly what’s coming.
- Seeing Viljar walking unaided again.
- Gier’s speech to Brievik on his last visit letting him know that he will never win.
22 July is a stilted experience that after its visceral and shocking opening section, switches gears into a recovery/courtroom drama that is both inspirational and uneven. Whilst I found the movie to be perhaps a little long and misguided in its focus, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s well put together, superbly acted and that it tells a story of personal and human triumph over one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory. I don’t think any movie could really honour the victims and survivors but this is at least respectful and not gratuitous – placing the emphasis on the human spirit to overcome evil rather than the evil itself.
Rating: 3/5 Good
If you liked 22 July then you may like…
- Utoya – July 22nd – The other film that depicts this event (not seen yet)
- Sully: Miracle on the Hudson – for another disaster and courtroom drama hybrid
- The Impossible – another large scale event that focuses on a few characters after
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