Paul Greengrass has made a decent, well-intentioned and well acted feature for Netflix about the terror attack in Norway on 22 July 2011 and its aftermath. It was an outrage perpetrated by Anders Breivik, an extreme-right self-appointed “counter-jihadist” and Nazi enthusiast who detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo and then opened fire on unarmed teenagers at a socialist summer camp on Utøya island, near the capital, killing 77 people. The film is as intelligent and committed as you would expect from Greengrass, but basically pretty conventional, like a very classy TV movie. It doesn’t have the radical simplicity, audacity and power of his 2006 film United 93, about 9/11 – or, in fact, another recent film about the Oslo attack, Erik Poppe’s Utøya July 22, which was clearly inspired by Greengrass. Very like United 93, Poppe’s film is a moment-by-moment ordeal in real time, seeking to recreate the attack from the viewpoint of its terrified and disoriented teen victims, lasting as long as the event itself, ending with the assailant’s capture but beginning with a deeply disturbing premonition of evil.
Well, for understandable reasons, Greengrass may not have wanted something that would look simply like a repeat of United 93. Here he spreads his attention more widely, but more thinly, with an ensemble approach, looking at a range of the people involved but at the cost of not really investigating any of them very deeply.
Anders Danielsen Lie (an actor who has previously played unsettling characters in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st and Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper) plays Breivik, very plausibly portraying him as the coolest of customers during the grisly attack, taking pills to keep himself calm just before heading out to Utøya, and then later, in his cell, as a smug and complacent self-promoter with grandiose fantasies about inspiring a new “Templar” uprising. Lie’s performance is very potent, although we are a bit close to fava-beans-and-chianti territory, and the film doesn’t quite convey why Breivik should have initially agreed to an insanity plea when it was surely clear that this would undermine his grotesque claims to political seriousness. The film implies that, at an early stage of questioning, Breivik did appear to be mad, claiming to be able to read minds, but the issue is left unclear. Rather exasperatingly, the film spends some time on how Breivik was able to buy guns and bomb-making equipment legally, but there is nothing on how he was able to get a very convincing fake cop uniform from the web – a vital part of how he got on to the island.
Jon Øigarden plays Geir Lippestad, the socialist lawyer who with a heavy heart accepted the brief to act for Breivik, at the killer’s own request, out of a conviction that everyone deserves a defence and because this was part of precisely the democratic system that Breivik was trying to destroy. Lippestad’s paradoxical situation is fascinating and – as with so many of the constituent parts of this film – I feel Greengrass might have done better just to have concentrated on Lippestad’s story and his self-questioning anguish (or made it about the relationship between lawyer and defendant, like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies; or else perhaps singly about Breivik’s sinister life history, or about one victim’s courageous recovery, and made of any these the individual key that would unlock the whole drama). Instead, despite a decent enough attempt from Øigarden, Lippstad remains an opaque and rather cursorily drawn figure, whom the film does not dwell on. Breivik claims that he chose Lippestad because he is part of the establishment, and even that they had met nine years before – a greater focus on Lippestad might have created room for a flashback to that bizarre moment.
Elsewhere, Ola G Furuseth plays the prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who emerges as a serious, concerned, self-critical figure – but again, without the film going into great depth. There is more power in Greengrass’s depiction of a representative victim, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager, formerly a bit conceited, who through intensive and traumatic therapy recovers from serious bullet wounds, finds a new maturity and is able to make a fierce victim statement at Breivik’s trial.
This is a heartfelt piece of work from Greengrass, but the blaze of passion is missing.