If you’re making a film about a terrorist attack upon innocent civilians, you’ll want to emulate the excellence of Paul Greengrass‘s United 93. As it turns out Greengrass has matched his own criteria with 22 July (Netflix, 10.10), which deals with the 2011 Norway attacks and their legalistic aftermath. Certainly during the first 35 or 40 minutes, which focuses on the attacks themselves (an Oslo government bombing followed by a mass machine-gun slaughter of teenagers on the island of Utoya) by right-wing anti-immigrant terrorist Anders Breivik.
Greengrass is a total pro who wrote the manual on how to shoot this kind of film. 22 July is proof of that.
A day before seeing the Greengrass I caught the “other” terrorist-attack-upon-innocent-civilians film, Anthony Maras‘ Hotel Mumbai (Bleecker Street, date unknown). It’s a decent enough re-capturing of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were carried out by Islamic Pakistani terrorists. It feels fairly realistic and well-ordered as far as it goes, but tonally it feels a little bit like a ’70s disaster film, like Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame‘s The Poseidon Adventure or Jack Smight‘s Airport 1975.
You know the type of film I’m describing — an unsettling if somewhat superficial exercise about wealthy people and devoted staffers trying to escape death but with no underlying attitude or undercurrent on the part of the director. The ’70s disaster film that Hotel Mumbai should have tried to measure up to is Richard Lester‘s Juggernaut, but that wasn’t in the cards.
There are two interesting (and possibly problematic) things about Greengrass’s film. One is that it portrays Breivik as relatively rational with a sense of discipline and self-control. Cold, paranoid and sociopathic, okay, but not a raving nutter. During the investigation and trial Beivik explained that he carried out the attacks to call attention to his opposition to Islamic immigration and his view that feminism has created a European “cultural suicide”. I’ve heard that there are some journos and industry types who feel that Greengrass did Breivik too much of a favor by allowing his character to explain his extreme right-wing views in a measured and somewhat neutral fashion.
The other problem is that most of 22 July is about the slow recovery of one of Breivik’s victims, a young good-looking guy who was shot on Utoya two or three times and lost an eye but lived and gradually learned to walk and speak again. Greengrass focus on his emotional states during his long, slow path to semi-recovery and his ultimate face-to-face confrontation with Breivik is not uninteresting or uninvolving, but there’s a feeling that Greengrass shouldn’t have dwelled upon some other aspect of the Norway attacks than this young man’s story. There’s something about what he went through that doesn’t quite do it for those of us in the seats. We want edgy thrills from Greengrass, not emotional difficulty or working through physical trauma.