22 July is about the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks that took place at a Norwegian government office and a summer camp on July 22, 2011. The film focuses on a family whose children survived the attack, the lawyer who is appointed to defend the attacker, and the attacker himself (Anders Danielsen Lie). 22 July is written and directed by Paul Greengrass, who is known for making films that are centered around real-life events such as Captain Phillips, which is about the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, and United 93, which is about one of the 9/11 plane hijackings. As a filmmaker, Greengrass generally excels at thrusting the audience into the action of his stories with a hyper-realistic style. However, he tones down that style significantly in 22 July, opting for a more introspective and, frankly, less engaging film.
The fact that 22 July exists at all has raised some questions about when is an appropriate time to make a film about a tragedy. Greengrass is no stranger to this line of questioning, as he faced similar criticisms upon the release of United 93, which opened just five years after the World Trade Center attacks. The message of the 22 July may be extremely relevant for audiences in 2018, but portraying these events so close to when they occured in real life seems to have done more harm than good. This especially applies to the scenes focused on Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist portrayed by Danielsen Lie. For the amount of time Greengrass devotes to this character, the audience receives only a superficial depiction of his life and motives.
Another flaw in the film is its runtime. At two and a half hours, 22 July is asking a lot of an audience who can click away to watch anything else at any moment. The overall issues with pacing start early on in the film. The actual attacks are shown about a thirty minutes into the film, but we don’t even get to know the characters in a meaningful way until an hour has passed. Though the first hour of the film is shot with disturbing realism, the events surrounding the attack do not further the audience’s emotional connection to the characters. The experience in the first half of the film may be visceral, but the second half demands a built-in connection to its characters. Unfortunately, it is a connection that never comes.
Though not magnificent, the performances are good for the most part. Anders Danielsen Lie effectively shows how calm and collected the terrorist was throughout the attacks and his trial, but without much to the role it comes across as fairly one-dimensional. The standout performance comes from Jonas Strand Gravli, who plays Viljar, a boy who is critically injured during the attacks. Viljar’s story is the emotional backbone of the film and Gravli does a great job depicting the frustration of a young boy trying to recover from this trauma.
Unfortunately, 22 July will end up being a minor effort in Greengrass’ filmography. The message is relevant for today’s time, but the film’s length and surface-level storytelling don’t do that message justice. It’s not a terrible movie, but given how competitive your Netflix watchlist probably is, 22 July should not a priority. ★★