There was this really good movie last year called In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts). It was a German film, from director Faith Akin and starring Diane Kruger in a performance I wish more people had talked about. The movie was about a terrorist explosion that kills the family of the character played by Kruger. I thought it was going to be about how a woman copes with such an event, but the movie turned out to be that plus so much more, including an inside look inside the German legal system, which was fascinating. What I first thought would be a movie about living in today’s world under the constant threat of terrorism turned out to be a courtroom drama mixed with one woman’s thirst for vengeance.
I bring up In the Fade because the new Paul Greengrass movie, 22 July, currently available on Netflix, reminded me of it in so many ways. 22 July is based on the actual events of July 22, 2011 in Norway. On that day, a single terrorist set off an explosion in downtown Oslo, which killed 8, and then drove one and a half hours to the small island of Utoya, where he then gunned down 69 people, mostly teenagers, before being taken into custody by police. A total of 77 people died that day at the hands of a lone attacker, the worst single day in Norway since World War II. The number of deaths surpasses even the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The event sent shockwaves throughout the world not just for the number of dead, but for the location. Norway was not on anyone’s radar for something like this to happen, so it was shocking.
So you would think that a movie about the tragedy would focus on the events of that day and maybe the geopolitical fallout. And while 22 July does re-enact the events of that tragic day, the majority of the movie takes place afterward, particularly the process of putting the gunman on trial. Again, we get a courtroom drama where we least expect it. And, again, it ends up being fascinating.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t cover the events from other angles as well. The emotional core of the film is the point-of-view of Viljar Hanssen (played by Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager who survives the island attack. We follow him from before the shooting, through the tragedy and follow him as he tries to put the pieces of his life back together, emotionally and physically. This focused, human connection is the heart of the movie and provides a moving perspective on attacks such as these.
But, as with any Paul Greengrass movie, the essence of the film is not in the emotional experience, but in the details, the logistics and the facts. A director known for creating dramatic re-creations of some of the world’s most famous recent events, Greengrass is meticulous in his presentations, putting us right there, forcing us to see and feel everything as it plays out. Whether telling of the Irish civil rights protests which led to a massacre in Sunday Bloody Sunday, or the horror of 9/11 in United 93, or the story of a container ship hijacking in international waters in Captain Phillips, Greengrass is a fascinating filmmaker who takes his talents for filming exciting action sequences (he cut his teeth on the Bourne movies) and applies them to re-telling real-life news events. He puts you equally with the perpetrators as with the victims, and puts an emphasis on the details—he paints the puzzle with all the pieces, so, as an observer, you can see the big picture while, at the same time, getting an understanding of the specific details: what happened, when and how.
By putting the audience in the middle of events such as these, Greengrass’s films may offer some emotional catharsis and may even prompt some healing. By spending equal time with the terrorists and victims, Greengrass doesn’t equalize them or make the evildoers more sympathetic, but, instead, he is presenting to us a case, for which, as an audience, we determine, for ourselves, the emotional verdict. Every evil act has a cause, and every action has a reaction. Through Greengrass’s method of authenticity, accuracy and realism, there just may be a better comprehension as to how these events could have happened. Only through that understanding can we make sure they never happen again.
22 July is an engrossing, meticulously made and emotional journey. After the riveting, horrific and incredibly well shot scenes of carnage that open the movie, it shifts to be a fascinating examination of society, justice, and all that it takes to stand up to and to overcome hatred and violence in a world that has quickly become too desensitized to individual stories in favor of body counts. These kinds of movies may not be your cup of tea—they certainly aren’t escapist entertainment—but I highly encourage you to see 22 July, for it is fascinating, meaningful and incredibly powerful.