Friday, October 12, 2018
Paul Greengrass | 22 July
how to react to hate
by Douglas Messerli
Paul Greengrass (screenplay, based upon the book One of Us by Åsne Seierstad, and director) 22 July / 2018
Reading various reviews of Paul Greengrass’ 2018 Netflix movie, 22 July, you feel the critics had seen two different films. And, strangely enough, there is another film about the events of that horrible day in 2011 when 77 children, some of Norway’s brightest and most promising, were shot to death by the rightist, anti-immigration terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (in this version played by the Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie); Erik Poppe’s U – 22, also based on Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath, premiered in the same year.
Having not yet seen Poppe’s film, I cannot comment on that work; but even Greengrass’ production seems to have garnered widely varying opinions, some, such as that expressed in Slant and Variety, arguing that, as in his United 93 film, the director dramatized shockingly painful events in an attempt at “blunt moralizing,” while creating characters that seemed one-dimensional.
There is no question that there are elements of righteous indignation in these comments. Certainly, the monster of this film, Breivik, has little dimension; but as Glenn Kenny has argued, he long ago had given up the possibility of being a true human by his actions, even if, at times, the Norwegian government and Greengrass vaguely try to see through to some humanness beneath his ranting political views.
Other critics, such as Kenny and me, feel that the film is far more moving and nuanced, despite obvious political viewpoints expressed in this work. In part, for me, it was a very personal work, since I lived in Norway for about a year early in my life; and, along with Greengrass’ inevitable “outsider” view, it was one I shared. The director, using an all-Norwegian cast speaking in English—which most Norwegians do—clearly attempted as best he could to be accurate to events and Norway’s attitudes and moral values. I think he quite succeeded, and that, perhaps more than anything else, is what moved me about this film.
Unlike a certain American president, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), who plans that day, July 22nd, to visit the students on retreat on the island of Utøya (a camp for the future leaders of Norway’s Labor Party), chastises his speech writers for not making his speech more personal—after all, he also attended that camp as a young man—and demands that he have a couple of hours after just to talk to the young women and men on a one-to-one basis. The rationality and empathy of his statements, in the first few scenes of this film, demonstrate it seems to me the entire nature of Norwegian culture.
If the arrival of these healthy-looking—most of them with ruddy red cheeks—and gender friendly boys and girls might seem almost out of a fantasy tale (these kids greet one-another with kisses and hugs and joyfully play co-ed soccer), these were the same kind of young adults I met when I suddenly landed in a Oslo fjord folk high school, as different from my previous American high-school experience that, at first, I simply didn’t know what to make of it. These children grew up in a society that simply liked one another.
True, Utøya may be a world of fairly like-minded kids, but it also reflects the newly opened-minded immigration policies of Norwegian authorities, with blacks and other minorities mixed into the blond, white Norwegians. These, moreover, were clearly the brightest of Norway’s children; as Breivik would later proclaim, as he arrives to shoot them down, “You will die today. Marxists, liberals, members of the elite.”
Unlike many contemporary populists, Breivik did not attack those immigrants he hated, but working in the forests of Norway, carefully built up an arsenal of bombs and weapons to attack at the very heart of Norwegian progressive politics, first bombing one of the major government buildings in Oslo, its façade blown to glass splinters before, dressed as a policeman aiming to check on and protect the Utøya children, demanding the ferry to quickly take him to the deaths of so very many beautiful beings.
There is no doubt that Greengrass’ presentation of the carnage that this terrorist caused—the monster murdered whole rooms of hiding children and anyone whom he could see—is absolutely horrifying, something which, at moments, we can only turn away from. Children race to the cliffs to hide, stumbling over one another before they are shot to death. The terror is palpable and overwhelming. How, in any honest film, could it not be?
But Greengrass, fortunately, tamps this violence scene down a bit by concentrating on just two children, brothers Sveinn Are Hanssen (Thorbjørn Harr) and his elder, protective sibling Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who keeps the younger on the run. Yet, in the process he, himself, is finally found and shot—five times. Breivik, like so many mass murderers, was determined to assure that everyone he shot would be dead.
Viljar, the son of a female mayor in the far-north of Norway, becomes the central focus of this story, not simply the story’s victim, and that is what gives this movie its moral meaning and significance. His terrified parents rush to his hospital bedside, where, unbelievably, he remains alive—but not without losing one eye, the use of one arm, and retaining in his brain stem bullet fragments that the doctors dared not even remove for fear of killing him on the operating table.
The captured terrorist, although attempting to create a myth of complicity with a larger underground community, betrays himself with his insistence that he be represented with the liberal attorney, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who by Norwegian law is obligated to represent the criminal if asked to do so, and, even after Lippestad and his team prepare a defense of insanity, makes it quite clear that he has carefully planned this attack as a statement of his opposition to Norwegian government policies.
Although, at moments, Breivik brings up issues that seem to put into question the entire society—at one point arguing that he represents the protection of societal values, to which the investigator argues, “It’s you on trial here, not the government,” the murderer responding, “Are you sure?”—ultimately his arguments, despite the humane treatment he receives (again so far different from USA prison procedures that it leaves one in tears), become almost irrelevant.
In this film, it is Viljar, endlessly working to rehabilitate his heavily-damaged body, who becomes the center of focus. The only drama of the last half of this film concerns whether or not he might return himself to the healthy society with which he began the film and if he will be able, physically and psychological, to testify against the man who hoped to end that.
As Kenny observes: “Greengrass doesn’t go for any big triumphalist moments; he doesn’t make Viljar’s courtroom speech a masterpiece of eloquence. This is a movie about difficulty and necessity.” And, obviously the very society that produced such a monster is regrettably undergoing a kind of trial. Can it survive such hate which exists with the reality of Breivik being one of them?
Every society on the planet, clearly, contains such haters and terrible murderers among them, but the truth of the values of each society are made most clear in their response and solutions to such deep hatred. Open vengeance, simple reaction, resistance to the reality of events, or sane social response makes the difference between these societies in terms of their survival. I might suggest that the US could learn a very great deal from the tortured but expedient Norwegian response.
Oddly enough Breivik was correct. When such terrible acts are committed, dozens of citizens meaningless destroyed, ignored, or simply given no way out of such horrible destruction, it is also the society that is under trial. Greengrass makes it clear that some countries and its citizens simply handle it better than others.
If 22 July is not a great film, it is, nonetheless, a quietly profound one.
Los Angeles, October 12, 2018