Over the last couple of years, there has been a new openness to depicting acts of white terrorism in film and television, as well as contemplating how certain kinds of white charisma that were once integral to film and television might have turned out to be continuous with this potential for white terror all along. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July is one of the most harrowing and rigorous films in that movement, outlining the events of the 2011 Norway attacks, and the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, played here by Anders Danielsen Lie, as a pivotal moment in the resurgence of white supremacism at the beginning of the long twenty-first century. Part of what makes Greengrass so suited for this particular task is that his career has subsisted, in large part, in taking tropes typically associated with a more right-wing visual sensibility – a focus on procedure, a dispassionate rendering of collective volatility, an injunction to political action and retribution – and wresting them into a radical leftist vocabulary. Given that Breivig himself often seem to cop-opt the lexicon of American action cinema, that places Greengrass in a unique position to puncture any residual aura or profundity that has accrued around Breivig in the last half-decade, while simultaneously positioning him as a very real, and very genuine, harbinger of a wave of supremacism and nationalism to come.
Key to that process is the real-time, docudrama approach of 22 July, as Greengrass moves immediately into the day of the attack, which is over by the thirty-minute mark (and the film is over two hours in length). In particular, Greengrass evokes the real time between the initial attack in Oslo, and the follow-up attack on Utoya, a stretch of time that the film never quite traverses, since it’s during this period that Breivik indicates that he is not only trying to destroy government as Norway knows it, but the very possibility of critical discourse around government, and the very notion of futurity that the socialist youth collective on Utoya was trying to address. While the massacre, and the aftermath of the massacre, inevitably condenses in scope to individual characters – partly because so many young people were killed – those characters are never adequate to shouldering the burden of collective horror entirely, producing a collective trauma and rage that displaces any single protagonist from its purview. Greengrass works well within this kind of collective affective space – it’s one of the reason why he works well with semi-absent protagonists like Jason Bourne – just as this collective focus immediately works to disinvest Breivik of his heroic individualism, which feels modelled on action clichés as much as the alt-right manifestos that he cites, and to which he now adds his own: “You will die today – Marxists, liberals, members of the elite.”
Yet for all that opening horror, 22 July emphasises the sanity of Breivik above all else, refusing to attribute his actions to childhood trauma or a humanist backstory. For the most part, the film is disinterested in his family life, which is condensed to his mother’s pathetic insistence that “he’s kind of right…the country’s not what it used to be,” which displaces any sense of pathos and instead positions him as a benficiacry of entitlement, a white extremist whose inability to acknowledge his own privilege was so extreme that he was prepared to kill 77 people to repress it. Among other things, that means that Greengrass really excels at capturing the pomposity of Brevik, and of white terror in general – an infantile entitlement that sees him prepared to do anything and everything to have his manifesto read, to have his day in court. Beyond a certain point, Breivik, like the Unabomber, responds to the waning of the white male voice with a determination to kill anyone, even children, and to commit any atrocity, for his voice to be heard – or, rather, he feels that his voice can’t be heard unless he engages in an atrocity proportionate to his feelings of disenfranchisement.
No surprise, then, that the only way to manage Breivik here is to tell him that the Prime Minister has sent him a personal message that he is “listening” – yet that just makes the film all the more remarkable in how rigorously it refrains from conceding Breivik the role of renegade visionary that he is so desperate to arrogate for himself. That’s a considerable achievement, given that a certain crazed visionary quality is de rigeur for films about this kind of radical whiteness – films that Breivik draws upon as much as his political readings – as Greengrass resists all Breivik’s efforts to frame himself as a martyr, and instead condenses him to a resistant, volatile, visceral ideology of white supremacy. Whether or not his ideology is mediated through mental illness, this ideology is what remains and ramifies, as Greengrass suffuses his mise-en-scenes with so much coldness that even Breivik’s claims to outrage – the favoured mode of the alt-right – are simply swallowed up by the film. To that end, Greengrass is also quite reserved and circumspect around Breivik’s relationship with attorney Geir Lippestad, played here by Jon Oigarden. In real life, Lippestad actually aimed for a bit of shtick around representing Breivik, but here Greengrass evacuates him of any of the charisma he might have liked to see attached to himself on the big screen – and, beyond a point, 22 July is simply not that interested in the nature of his proximity to Breivik.
By the trial, then, it feels as if Greengrass has dismantled all the genre clichés that Breivik has constructed around himself – his cinematic fantasia – leaving the last part of the film for his testimony. For Breivik, standing up in court was “the third attack,” and Greengrass treats it as such, taking his manifesto dead seriously, as we are presented with a white supremacist tirade that claims to speak on behalf of “Europeans deprived of ethnic, indigenous and territorial rights.” In other words, 22 July acknowledges the existence of white terrorism as a movement, rather than a series of lone wolves, to an extent unmatched by any other film I’ve seen, culminating with a character witness from another Norwegian white supremacist who is called to the stand on Breivik’s request. Claiming that “the alt-right, whatever you call us – we’re deadly serious about seizing power,” this character also claims that he didn’t actually see Breivik as a real leader, in a solitary moment of weakness for Breivik that, in another kind of film, might have psychologized his motivations out of the realm of the political. In Greengrass’ version, however, it’s this witness who looks hypocritical, since it’s clear that Breivik is acting directly upon the supremacist views he is espousing, as the film refuses to concede any real difference between alt-right and terror.
Put bluntly, then, Greengrass has a brilliant answer to the right-wing thinkers who claim Breivik as a visionary, and the left-wing thinkers who find themselves compelled to frame him in visionary terms – as a manifestation of the state of Norway – in order to compute his crimes. In lieu of those two fairly noxious treatments, Greengrass provides a more banal reading, suggesting that while Breivik’s vision of society is horrific, his vision of the rise of white supremacy is accurate, meaning that he does have quite a stark sense of the motivation and context of his crimes, and that his prediction of the continuous rise of white supremacism and the alt-right feels chillingly accurate. Put even more bluntly,, Greengrass makes it clear that Breivik is the enemy, rather than a lone wolf or psychologically damaged individual. Indeed, as the film proceeds into its third act, white supremacism and paranoid schizophrenia – Breivik’s official medical diagnosis – come to feel like a false opposition anyway, since Breivik’s entitlement is itself an inherently paranoid and schizoid proposition.
The dissolution of that opposition means that the action lexicon of the film is gradually wrenched away from everything that Breivik might do to claim it, and instead attached to Viljar Hanssen, played by Jonas Strand Gravli, whose rehabilitation after being shot in the head on Utoya forms a counterpoint to the preparations for the trial. Yet while Hanssen may eventually start working out, lifting weights and scaling mountains, his rehabilitation narrative doesn’t cancel out the trauma of the attack – it just testifies to the material reality and ramifications of the attack, much as Hanssen’s eventual testimony consists largely of a catalogue of the things that Breivik did to his body and mind: “I have a fragment of his bullet lodged in my brain that could kill me at any time.” In other words Hanssen doesn’t ever exactly emerge victorious over Breivik, even if Breivik isn’t empowered further either. Instead, the final note of the film is Breivik’s prophecy of further white terror, and the oescalation of the alt-right, placing the final few scenes in a stark pre-apocalyptic space, in which the injunction to mobilise is clearer and more uncompromising than in any of Greengrass’ films since Bloody Sunday, a companion piece to this extraordinary testament.