In the industry’s long, curious history of “twin films” — near-simultaneous productions made, quite coincidentally, on the same subject or from the same material — there have been few bleaker subjects for accidental double-feature treatment than Norwegian neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, and his two-part massacre of 77 civilians on July 22, 2011. But these are somber times we’re living in, and so it is that months after the premiere of Erik Poppe’s “U – July 22,” a formidably grueling reenactment of Breivik’s bloody attack on the Utøya youth summer camp, British action-vérité specialist Paul Greengrass has followed with “22 July,” a more expansive procedural examination of the atrocity, the ensuing justice process and its weighty effect on Norway’s national psychology. It’s intelligently stern, storm-gray filmmaking, as we’ve come to expect from Greengrass; if it feels a bit mechanical as well, perhaps this is a near-impossible story to film with both tact and soul.
Set for global release on Netflix a month after its premiere in competition at Venice, “22 July” would wind up being far the most-viewed of the two films even without the advantage of Greengrass’s name — though with its all-Norwegian ensemble and earnest political outlook, this is the helmer’s most low-wattage work since his testing 9/11 docudrama “United 93.”
Yet despite outward similarities, “22 July” feels more compromising, or at least more concession-laden, than that film or 2002’s incendiary “Bloody Sunday,” adding as it does more speculative human drama to its rigorous, ripped-from-the-headlines anatomy of a tragedy. First and naggingly foremost among those concessions, meanwhile, is the decision to shoot in Nordic-accented English throughout, a contrivance that chips away at Greengrass’s customary knack for environmental authenticity, and imposes a uniformly measured meter on the actors’ otherwise honestly felt performances. Even at its most immersive, we’re never less than aware of the film’s diligent outside view.
Poppe’s homegrown film was ethically debatable but cinematically propulsive in its real-time, victim’s-eye dramatization of the Utøya massacre. In a way, it’s more the one we might have expected Greengrass to make, with its rough-and-tumble, dirt-on-the-lens aesthetic vividly conveying the in-the-moment terror of the incident. Shot and cut with the kind of unstopping, unstinting true-crime dourness that makes the bottom fall out of your stomach — it’s certainly the showcase sequence for mostly solemn, subtly textured work by editor William Goldenberg and d.p. Pål Ulvik Rokseth — “22 July’s” own Utøya restaging is suitably nightmarish, playing to all Greengrass’s strengths as a director of movement and panic even as it once more raises questions about the moral viability of forging cinematic tension from the cold-blooded execution of 69 children.
But it fills a mercifully brief stretch of a 143-minute film that spends far more time on the consequences, ultimately dividing its attention evenly between killer and survivor: In this case, 17-year-old Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli, in a mettlesome big-screen debut), a real-life figure who nearly lost his life in the attack. Between colder dramatizations of judicial and governmental process, Greengrass’s sprawling script more sentimentally frames the lad’s steep climb to mental and physical recovery — shot multiple times by Breivik, he survived with blindness in one eye and the possibility of further brain injury from immovable bullet fragments — as a proxy for the shared PTSD of his peers, and indeed his country.
Breivik himself is a trickier dramatic challenge to negotiate. Where “U – July 22” kept him almost entirely off-screen, seemingly in deference to his victims, “22 July’s” broader remit doesn’t permit that option. Casting Anders Danielsen Lie, the brilliant young star of Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st,” in the role, Greengrass sets out not to humanize him (what humanity is there to work with?) but to make him a clear, unshakeable character: one-dimensional, yes, but only because of Breivik’s professed, psychotic single-mindedness of purpose. He enters the film a silent, near-spectral presence, methodically laying the night-before groundwork for his bombing of Oslo’s government quarter — also depicted on screen with juddering frankness — as his mother (Hilde Olausson) looks on from a fretful distance; he speaks only upon arrival at Utøya, dully barking commands amid the carnage.
He’s more loquacious upon arrest, when he requests mystified liberal attorney Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) to represent him, though once he begins stating his case, Breivik’s still waters prove to run pretty shallow. Much of the courtroom intrigue is built around the on-again-off-again status of Breivik’s insanity plea: It’s a dry irony in the film that the more he insists he was rationally responsible for his actions, the more demented and deluded he sounds. What he repeatedly spews — in private to Lippestad and later in a court of law, as he claims to have acted “in defense of Norway” — is a hateful, pompous “manifesto” of white supremacist rhetoric that depressingly sounds less startling in 2018, following a global amplification of far-right politics, than it did back in 2011.
Greengrass’s script isn’t subtle in drawing the line from Breivik’s beliefs to the co-opting of extreme anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiment by mainstream politicians from Trump to the architects of Brexit. In one telling detail, a large banner at the Utøya camp, a politically-minded retreat for young liberals, states “For the many, not the few” — the slogan of Britain’s Labour Party in the country’s 2017 elections. To parlay a phrase, political time (and geography) is a flat circle in “22 July,” which may represent the most valid justification for a supremely well-made film that, for all its stoic human interest and carefulness of craft, risks seeming less than entirely necessary.
At a moment in history when Breivik’s vapid brand of politics isn’t short of popular exposure, “22 July” brings no context to its horrific story that we didn’t already understand; when the parents of the deceased protest that Breivik doesn’t deserve the privilege of speaking in court, the film seems cannily aware of its own responsibility in giving him a face and a voice. What “22 July” does achieve through its obviousness, however, is an emphatic universal reminder that its chosen passage of history is not past, that another Breivik could leave a similar scar upon the world at any time. That’s not the most rousing of takeaways from the film’s otherwise soberly hopeful conclusion, but at least it doesn’t feel like a compromise.