With the gruesome 22 July, Paul Greengrass, that expert in making art from recent historical violence, reduces the terrorist attacks that rocked Norway in 2011 to a crass movie parable: Here's the everyman who overcomes considerable pain and helps put a deadly extremist in jail. Crafting his pseudo-realistic account of the crimes and trial of anti-Islamic murderer Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), writer-director Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, Bloody Sunday) examines the attacks through the pinhole lens of post-disaster trauma.
In a spate of bombings and attacks, Breivik killed 77 and wounded 209. Greengrass focuses on one victim, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), who lost three fingers and his right eye during Breivik's attack on a secluded Utøya youth camp.
22 July's sickening dramatization of the Utøya slaughter — filmed with Greengrass' typically jarring handheld camerawork -- concludes with a relatively clear, seconds-long close-up of Hanssen's face. All of Breivik's other victims are reduced to frantic body language and indistinct screams. Greengrass then juxtaposes Hanssen's uneasy road to recovery with Breivik's unnervingly calm preparation for his trial, an emotionally charged event that Greengrass reduces to a contest of clashing personalities and ideologies: Breivik's stoic fearmongering vs. Hanssen's tearful optimism. There's nothing enlightening about the pained scenes in which Gravli, as Hanssen, falls on his side as he struggles to walk without a cane, or gags when he, recovering from brain surgery, has a breathing tube ripped out of his mouth. Instead, these re-enactments elicit the same cattle prod-reflex winces as gory torture scenes in already dated post-9/11 horror films like Hostel, Saw and The Devil's Rejects.