For the past 16 years, British filmmaker Paul Greengrass has been cinema’s poet laureate of political violence, an artist who has shaped a cinematic language — jagged, naturalistic, neutral but engaged — around some of the most wrenching collective traumas of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In 2002, Greengrass made “Bloody Sunday,” about the 1972 massacre of Irish civil rights protesters by British troops; “United 93” (2006) was an unnervingly realistic dramatization of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” Greengrass reenacted the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates to address deeper issues of globalization and disenfranchisement. Now, with “22 July,” about a right-wing assassin’s attack on a youth camp in Norway in 2011, the filmmaker has returned to some of his cardinal themes — terrorism and the parameters of how best to respond to it.
“I never thought I would do another one after ‘United 93,’ I must say,” he admitted during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “22 July” had its North American premiere. (The film is currently available in theaters and on Netflix.) “It came as a surprise.”
Greengrass had traveled to Lampedusa, Italy, with the thought of making a film about the migration crisis, he said, when he woke up one day and realized he was “in the wrong part of Europe.” He continues: “I went for a walk with the dogs and I came back and thought ‘I wonder if I should look at how the migrant journey begins here, you cross the water, you get into Europe and you move to wherever, and then what do you find there?”
It was at that point that Greengrass read the testimony of Anders Behring Breivik, who on July 22, 2011, bombed Oslo’s civic center, killing eight people, then traveled to the island of Utoya, where at a Labour Party camp he gunned down the staff and their charges, ultimately murdering 69 people, most of them teenagers.
“I felt an icy feeling reading it,” Greengrass recalls of Breivik’s statement, which included rambling critiques of Islam, immigration, multiculturalism and the “deconstruction” of Norway. “I remember reading that and thinking, ‘That’s unbelievable,’ ” Greengrass said. “When he said those words in 2011, that would have been considered outré and outrageous. That’s mainstream now for politicians across the populist right. Not that they approve of Breivik’s methods, but the rhetoric, the worldview, the words, they’re all the same.”
True to form, Greengrass stages the real-life events of his movie with methodical detail, up to and including initial scenes revisiting the bloody rampage at the camp. The rest of “22 July” is dedicated to how the citizenry and government of Norway responded to the attack, culminating in a stirring courtroom showdown between Breivik and a teenager named Viljar Hanssen, who sustained life-threatening injuries during the assault.
Unlike Greengrass’s previous films, “22 July” isn’t filmed with his distinctively rigorous, handheld immediacy. The legal procedural, which is juxtaposed with Viljar’s healing process and his decision to testify, unfolds in the conventional, classical middle distance, with surprising moments of un-Greengrassian sentimentality. It’s only during Breivik’s incursion on the camp that the filmmaker’s signature subjectivity comes into play, with the camera capturing the carnage largely from the gunman’s point of view and bringing the audience into an uncomfortable gray area between empathy for the victims and sickening first-person-shooter spectacle.
Greengrass insists that he showed restraint in those scenes. “The only graphic violence, really, is the shooting of Viljar Hanssen, which I did with his permission,” he says (individual viewers’ definition of “graphic” may vary). Perhaps more debatable was his decision to give Breivik pride of place throughout “22 July,” allowing him ample room to spout deranged ideas about everything from “Marxist liberals” and the ills of immigration to the Knights Templar.
“I definitely thought about it, and thought about it hard,” Greengrass said about allowing Breivik to speak in “22 July.” “It comes ultimately to a judgment that you make about whether this is out and about in the world in a real way, or whether he’s an aberrant figure,” he said. Citing recent victories for neo-Nazi and far-right parties in Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Italy, he calls Breivik an avatar for larger forces similar to the men who flew the planes in “United 93.”
Just as 9/11 opened Americans’ eyes to the global threat of Islamist terrorism, Greengrass said, Breivik personified an ideological pattern that is “long-lasting and generational. The threat is real, and it’s spreading fast. And if the fire is burning, then it requires a different response. It urgently requires our eyes to be opened and our cinema to be open to what’s actually occurring in the world, what’s actually happening, as opposed to going, ‘I don’t want to look at this, because it’s too troubling.’ ”
Still, even a scant seven years after the events depicted in “22 July,” it’s possible to wonder whether the movie is troubling enough: The story ends on a solemn but bracing note, with Viljar Hanssen, former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and their fellow Norwegians having won the day by advocating for tolerance, pluralism, compassion and rational thinking, and with Breivik safely isolated in prison. But in many ways “22 July” feels as if it’s already been outstripped by reality. While “22 July” might anticipate the rise of the far right in Europe, its time frame prevents the film from addressing Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the role of such cyber-aggressors as Russia’s Internet Research Agency in amplifying and aggravating racism and tribal division.
For his part, Greengrass thinks that “22 July” illuminates a path forward “because it shows how democracy can be fought for in crisis. And what are the ways you do it? Through political leadership, through the rule of law, and ultimately through young people articulating the values that they want to live by.”
One more thing, he added, and this circles back to why he allowed Breivik to have a voice in his movie. “We’re going to have to listen,” Greengrass said. “Donald Trump doesn’t get elected, Brexit doesn’t happen unless we’re not listening. That’s the truth of it. We’re going to have to listen to these voices and understand them, unwelcome though some of them may be, if we’re going to get out of this problem. And we’re going to have to contend with them, too. We’re going to have to beat them with better arguments.”