Brow Beat

22 July’s Paul Greengrass Says His Movie Is Less About a Terrorist Attack Than the World It Leaves Behind

The director of United 93 broadens his focus this time.

Director Paul Greengrass at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 5.
Director Paul Greengrass at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 5.
Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

When I sat down to watch Paul Greengrass’ new film 22 July, I was dreading it. Aside from a few forays into the Bourne universe, the British filmmaker is best known for meticulous, vérité recreations of traumatic historical events: the 1972 Bogside Massacre in Bloody Sunday, 9/11 in United 93, and the Maersk Alabama hijacking in Captain Phillips. His new project takes on the 2011 lone-wolf terrorist attack by far-right extremist Andres Behring Breivik—including a bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at an island summer camp run by Norway’s ruling Labour Party—that killed 77 people in total. As gripping as his films may be, after this news year, who would want to watch a painstakingly recreated ticktock of the slaughter of dozens of teenagers?

But Greengrass has changed his approach this time around. The sickening events of July 22, 2011, take up only about the first 30 minutes of the movie, with the rest focused on the aftermath. “I was more interested in how Norway responded to the attacks, than the attacks themselves, how Norway fought for its democracy and what that looks like,” Greengrass told me in an interview in Washington this week. “What are the strengths you have to fall back on in the face of this savage right-wing assault?”

Filmed with a Norwegian cast speaking in English, the film largely tells the story of Breivik’s trial, focusing in particular on his unlikely attorney, Labour Party activist Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden); the rehabilitation of Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), one of the young survivors from Utoya island; and the response of Prime Minister (now NATO Secretary General) Jens Stoltenberg (Ola Furuseth). The most chilling takeaway is not so much the violence but Breivik himself (played by Anders Danielsen Lie). While his actions may have been unique, his motivating belief that “Marxists, liberals, [and] members of the elite” are forcibly turning Norway into a multicultural society is anything but. In fact, at Breivik’s trial, Lippestad ended up making the case not that Breivik was innocent—there was little question he wasn’t—but that he was not insane, requiring him to show that “he’s not alone in his views.” If anything, Breivik’s views have only moved closer to the mainstream in the years since. It’s not hard to imagine him carrying a Tiki torch through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, or lurking on 4Chan.

“He’s a very disturbing figure and a haunting figure,” said Greengrass. “There are two sides to him. On the one hand, he was Walter Mitty. He talked about being a member of the Knights Templar, an organization that had been set up [after] 9/11 to challenge the Muslim invasion of Europe and that there had been this meeting in London where he was given his mission. Of course it was all fantasy. On the other hand, everything that he said has also come true. There really is this organization now. It really exists.”

He continued: “His intellectual worldview about the betrayal by the elites, globalization having forced multiculturalism on the host nation the sham of democracy—when he said those words in the court, they were considered at the far margins of political discourse. But if you look at his manifesto today, that intellectual framework is now central to our political discourse. No far-right politician, in your country or mine, would have any problem saying what he said.”

22 July ends up as something of a paean to how the small l liberal institutions that Breivik despised held up in the face of the most horrifying imaginable act of violent extremism. Breivik is put on trial, even given a platform to promote his hateful ideology. His victims are given the chance to confront him. Stoltenberg sets up a commission to hold his own government accountable. The center holds.

The film also focuses heavily on the stories of Viljar and his friend Lara—a refugee from the Middle East who also survived the shooting—as they prepare to confront Breivik in court. Greengrass compared their role to the survivors of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting as well as the wave of youth activism that has followed Brexit in the U.K., as participants in a new era of ideological struggle. “The idea of ideological struggle is something that people my age grew up with, in the shadow of the Cold War,” he said. “Once you get to ’89 and all that end of history bunkum, the sense of the last 20 to 30 years has been that democracy is a given. It’s not a given.”

The film ends on a note of wary optimism, with Breivik being led into a cell for the rest of his life, while Viljar overlooks a harsh—but wide open—Arctic landscape. “The question is, are we going to live in a closed world or an open world? It’s not about left and right, it’s about closed and open,” says Greengrass.