One-man-against-the-world is a standard action-flick scenario that Paul Greengrass, the director of three Bourne films, has already mastered. With his latest film, “22 July,” however, his protagonist is no Jason Bourne. He’s Anders Behring Breivik, the real-life mass killer who, on July 22, 2011, killed 77 Norwegians, most of them teenagers.
Although Greengrass is best known for action movies, including the multi-Oscar nominee “Captain Phillips,” he began in nonfiction filmmaking before undertaking such docudramas as 2002’s “Bloody Sunday,” made 30 years after the British military shooting of protesters in Northern Ireland. That film, like Greengrass’s “United 93” — another Oscar nominee — plunged so deeply into the action that viewers felt drenched in sensation.
“22 July” is gentler than those movies during its first act, in which Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) kills eight people with a bomb in Oslo before traveling to Utoya Island to gun down adolescents at a Labour Party youth camp. (He condemns them as “Marxists, liberals and members of the elite” as he fires.) Greengrass employs a handheld camera effectively, as usual, to simulate confusion, panic and terror. He cuts away from the most horrific moments of slaughter.
The movie focuses on three teenage survivors of the attack: Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), his younger brother Torje (Isak Bakli Aglen), and Lara (Seda Witt) — the daughter of refugees, and therefore just the sort of person the nativist terrorist intended to target. Torje and Lara are physically unharmed, although the girl loses her sister in the violence. Viljar arrives at the hospital in critical condition, with bullet fragments in his brain.
Where “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” depicted just a few hours on a single day, “22 July” soon leaves the titular date behind. Two-thirds of the narrative is devoted primarily to Viljar’s recovery, both physical and mental, and Breivik’s trial. The self-styled “Knight Templar” requests representation by a liberal attorney (Jon Oigarden), who, according to the movie, is not permitted to refuse.
The lawyer endures threats, and his young daughter is shunned at school. Viljar’s mother (Maria Bock) is elected mayor of the family’s small Arctic town, although she never leaves her son’s side to campaign. When he’s finally well enough to go home, Viljar struggles with physical rehabilitation and depression while pondering the opportunity to address Breivik directly at his sentencing. The film’s climax is a pair of speeches — reasoned, deeply felt and believable — rather than a physical showdown.
The dialogue of “22 July” is in English, an inauthentic detail that makes it feel more conventional than Greengrass’s previous breaking-news films — especially when it ultimately turns into a courtroom drama. But the director is faithful to his source material, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad’s “One of Us.” If Breivik’s post-massacre posturing seems outrageous, it’s mostly from the book.
By spending more time on the aftermath than on the crime itself, the filmmaker loses some of the urgency of his other movies. But the performances, particularly Danielsen Lie’s icily self-involved killer, are suitably intense. Greengrass previously excelled at depicting events that overwhelmed individuals; in “22 July,” he demonstrates how one deluded zealot can shake an entire country.
R. At Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing and West End cinemas; also available via Netflix streaming. Contains disturbing violence, graphic medical procedures and strong language. 133 minutes.