Paul Greengrass Explains Why The Harrowing ‘22 July’ Is About The Revival Of Nationalism Happening Today

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Paul Greengrass’ 22 July takes us through the events of the July 22, 2011, Norway attacks that left 77 people dead. As Greengrass (best known as the director of three Jason Bourne films) notes, the film is more about life in 2018 than it is about what happened in Norway in 2011. At the time, Norway attack terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s white nationalist views were considered fringe. Now, seven years later at the Toronto International Film Festival, 22 July is playing in the same theater as American Dharma, Errol Morris’ interview with Steve Bannon, a man who helped Donald Trump win the American presidency on a wave of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric.

The first act of 22 July, which centers on the attacks, is a tough watch. What follows is Breivik’s trial, as the survivors and the country of Norway struggled with how to proceed. Do they let Breivik speak? Do they just declare him insane and move on? Are there more of him out there willing to commit similar murderous rampages?

Paul Greengrass seems worried. Really worried. (When I meet Greengrass he’s reading about the Swedish elections that had happened the day before this interview and he finds them very troubling.) Ahead, Greengrass explains why he made 22 July and the struggle he had in deciding if he wanted to depict Breivik in a film — if it somehow glorifies the whole thing. But, in the end, he says it was the victims’ families who encouraged him to make this film as a warning for what might be coming.

The first 30 minutes of this movie, the attacks, are just so overwhelming.

No, I get it. I get it. I had to think about all that before I made the movie. What I would say is that it’s not a film about the attacks, it’s a film about what happened after.

But you have to still show what happens, I understand that, but it’s horrifying.

You have to go through that experience in order to tell the story of how Norway fought for their democracy.

Is it about Norway fighting for its democracy, or is it about what’s happening in the world today?

Definitely. You’re bang on the money. A reason I made the film, we’re facing a massive right-wing and unprecedented move to the right. So to address your point about the violence, I think the violence is extremely restrained, I mean there’s very little graphic violence.

I agree, but knowing it’s a true story…

I know. A tough, tough watch. I get it. I get it. Hopefully, the fact that you didn’t walk out suggests I got that balance right because you’ve got to make it tough to understand. Then the courage of that young man and what he went through to fight back. But you do it with the permission of the families, you ask them…

Oh, so you talked to them?

Yeah. But, you know, I think that cinema does a lot of things, doesn’t it? It entertains, and that’s great.

And you’ve made a lot of entertaining movies over your career.

And I think it’s also an art form. There are filmmakers here who made some beautiful films that are about their private artistic visions but one of the things that films have to do from time to time is to get that mirror out. I mean, Hungary, Poland, Italy, the UK, the US, Brazil: we’re in dangerous territory and I made this film because a lot of it, you can see writ large in the Breivik case, and in particular, you can take inspiration from Norway.

I often wonder how much more trouble the United States would be in if Trump were also smart.

I’m not sure he’s stupid.

And maybe this is the last throw, at least for us, hopefully.

Do you reckon?

I don’t know. I’m trying to be positive.

I think he’ll be re-elected. The point is that this is more than just one man.

Of course.

Where are the leaders who are gonna put these people in a box? And these ideas in a box?

When I ask you a question like this, I kind of hate doing it because I feel like you’re going to think it’s loaded, but I don’t have an opinion on it.

Ask away.

Do you worry someone is going to watch this and go, “Well, maybe if I do something like this, Paul Greengrass will make a movie about me?”

I get it. Some people have asked me that and believe it. It’s certainly something I thought about at the outset, very definitely I did. Here’s how it goes for me. I came to this overwhelmingly strong view that while I understood that argument, I felt that it was not correct for this reason, or reasons. First of all, if Breivik had been an isolated figure then, entirely alone, who had just come to these views and acted upon them in this murderous fashion, and if I had come to that story now and those views were also pretty remote, then I would have sat and thought, “I agree with that view and to make this film would not be the right thing to do.”


But the fact is that Breivik, when he acted was part of the alt-right network in Europe. The alt-right did not begin in America. It’s gotten popular, but the alt-right began in Europe and Breivik was part of the alt-right in Europe. And you know, it was young, educated people. Breivik is not stupid, he’s educated. He’s intelligent.

Very manipulating.

Yeah, his father was a diplomat. He’s savvy.

Savvy is a good word.

And that was a movement that was already profoundly on the move in 2011. So the idea that we can somehow be helpful by pretending that this doesn’t exist when the fire is burning seems to be nonsensical, just not correct. I didn’t meet a single person in Norway – not one single person who lost a son or a daughter or a mother or a father, not one – and I would include Jens Stoltenberg, who’s now head of NATO, who sat down and said, “You must make this film. People have got to understand what’s coming now. This is a growing problem. This is what we’re facing.” All of them were of the view that we have to open our eyes and our cinema to what’s going on.

How do we deal with Breivik in such a way as we do not allow him to become a poster boy for what he’s done? That we don’t allow him to recruit others to his cause? And they came to the view that what had to happen was he had to be allowed to speak. That people had to listen to what those arguments were. They had to have in evidence that he clearly was part of a wide spectrum of opinion. It was in the margin, but he wasn’t an isolated figure. He was not alone. So that’s why the story of Norway’s so inspiring. That’s why it’s so relevant to us today. Because those were the arguments they went through to come to the conclusion that they did. We have got to open our minds and eyes in our cinema to what is going on, otherwise we’re gonna be in trouble.

Changing the subject dramatically, I always wondered what you thought of The Bourne Legacy?

Did I ever see The Bourne Legacy? You know, I don’t think I did?

Okay, I was just curious what you thought of that movie.

You know, I don’t think I saw it. I don’t know, I think it did alright, didn’t it?

Yeah, it did alright, but being so involved in that franchise, I just wonder if you were watching it going, “This is different.”

When you’ve given as much time of your life as I did to them – and I made three movies in that franchise and I loved every minute of it and I loved the people involved and I loved the studio – you love it all. You want it to win. It’s my franchise. So I want it to win whether it’s Tony Gilroy making it, or me making it, or whoever. They’re like your team, do you know what I mean?

Because Jeremy Renner was taking chems (experimental pills to enhance his mental prowess) in that one, which is like this whole different thing.

But listen, people are trying, they’re all trying. All these franchise have long lives way beyond any one person who steps in for a period of time. And it is like your team. That’s honestly the best way I can put it: you follow your sports team and that’s your team. You want them to win whatever in whatever circumstances.

I thought of you as the coach of the team. And then for that one you’re not the coach so it might be a different perspective.

They’re still your team.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.