22 July (2018) by Paul Greengrass
Review by Andrew Swafford, Lydia Creech and Zach Dennis
ZACH: Here is one that sparked a decent amount of discussion amongst the three of us. I was most curious to hear Andrew talk about it due to his recent video essay on guns in movies, but it also marked the return of director Paul Greengrass, who threads this line between more blockbuster fare with the Bourne movies — and even Green Zone to an extent (remember THAT movie?!?) — and docu-drama journalistic pieces such as United 93, which takes a real-life event and explores the tragedy and humanity within the event. This time with his latest film, 22 July, he focuses on the mass murder of 77 people (including 69 young people) by the hands of a right-wing terrorist in Norway on July 22, 2011. The event was the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, and Greengrass begins by playing out the actual attack before using the remainder of the movie to examine what happens afterwards for the survivors and the terrorist, who is being held in prison ahead of trial.
I get what Greengrass is attempting to accomplish here, but this one really left me cold. I didn’t necessarily understand why we had to witness the actual attack, and as I pointed out in the podcast, why it needed to have the filmmaking technique that Greengrass employs in action sequences in his other movies, but I seemed to be, not in the minority, but not necessarily aligned with you all. What did you make of it, Lydia?
LYDIA: It feels like this is a movie that very badly wants to be Important. Greengrass clearly has a lot of different things on his mind, but the way they wound up being explored in the movie felt very confused and too light. There are several thematic threads about the uses of political violence or issues of free speech or how young men are radicalized online but none really get the time to be more than a passing mention. I guess the idea is to throw up many intersecting contemporary issues, but that’s leaving the audience to have too much to parse how they all fit together. As an exploration of far-right ideology, I don’t think Greengrass quite gets to the heart (?) of it.
ANDREW: I think I was a bit more sympathetic to this one than you guys were on the day of the premiere, but the beleaguered form of it definitely makes for an experience I’m not eager to revisit. I completely agree with Zach that the trademark Greengrass shakycam being constantly employed throughout the movie’s seemingly endless string of dialogue scenes is really wearying, and unnecessarily so. And I also agree with Lydia that this thing is definitely messy and could use major streamlining in the editing room--he wants to pursue every avenue of the shooting’s aftermath, and each individual throughline ends up underserved.
However, I was decently compelled while watching (but maybe that’s just my personal interest in the subject talking) and I did even find a few things to admire! One, as I laid out in our third podcast diary, is the film’s judicious insistence that this shooting--and others like it--was a product of ideology, not mental health. We always want to cry “mental health” when someone like Dylan Roof shoots up a church, conveniently ignoring his stated allegiance to white nationalism--or Elliot Roger and Mens Rights, or whatever else. The film also felt far less disingenuous in it’s handling of victimhood than Vox Lux did: these characters at least seemed to experience trauma (which Greengrass approximates with editing and non-diegetic sound), however underdeveloped it may be in the grand scheme of the film. A low bar, though, for sure.
ZACH: It’s true that the movie is more interested in going “this guy is a terrorist and it isn’t anything else” and I do respect that. I think I mentioned it in the podcast diary, but that should have been the focus of the movie rather than what seemed like Greengrass going through the motions of the events of the film. The psychological toll it took on the victims, and even the man who was tasked with being the terrorist’s lawyer, was extremely compelling. For instance, the main character is seriously injured during the attack and his brother gets away unscathed and seems to be living with this survivor’s guilt that is constantly hinted at but never actively engaged.
The main character also struggles with moving forward in life and carrying on but this seems more like a bit of plot momentum rather than an actual exploration into his psyche and what he must be thinking at all times. Greengrass offers PTSD glimpses but I would say that’s about it. I also would have like to engage more with this concept of modern terrorism in the vein of Dylan Roof, Nicolas Cruz and this terrorist here, Anders Behring Breivik. It just seems like Greengrass didn’t understand what was interesting about this story or what needed to be explored outside of the obvious points, but that was something that was probably covered extensively in the news coverage afterwards or the book this is based on.
Movies are a visual art and have the ability to engage psyche and the interiority of its characters. 22 July just never does that and it seems like a massive loss to ignore it.