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Review: Utoya - July 22 (Erik Poppe) / 22 July (Paul Greengrass)

Andrea Berntzen in Utoya - July 22

You can always rely on a white liberal to latch onto a problem and proclaim to recognise its significance a day late and a dollar short, and usually only once they've fallen victim to that problem. So it is that, seven years into this grinding, crumbling, swiftly submerging cruise through the various circles of hell that white supremacy and its white victims get the movie treatment - same story, different treatments, a gaping chasm in quality. One, Erik Poppe's Utoya - July 22, takes a controversial approach toward documenting the slaughter of 69 on the titular date and the titular Norwegian island, mostly teenagers, and emerges nobly; the other, Paul Greengrass' 22 July, seeks a more measured, objective path toward coming to terms with the attack, alongside its twin bomb attack in Oslo on the same date, and emerges undignified and borderline offensive. A day late? Perhaps, but only perhaps. A dollar short? And then some...

I watched the two films in the above order, also the order of their debuts, and am thankful for it - that the former's superiority exposed the latter for its brazen, empty-headed stupidity, and that the latter had no opportunity to sour my opinion on the former had I watched them in reverse order. They share a subject matter, and a certain pallid grey-toned palette, yet may very well be direct opposites of one another in regard to their outlook upon and presentation of the July 22nd attacks. Poppe's movie, a genuine single take, recounts the attack itself, tinged with an early undercurrent of unease followed by an unrelenting overtone of terror, pursuing a fictional character as she attempts to evade a mostly unseen shooter. With a clear artistic vision and abundant compassion that only occasionally skirts sentimentality, Poppe avoids staging these events as exploitative thrills, and loosens the strictures on his technique when the potential for exploitation increases. Those strictures serve Poppe well, however, restraining him from indulging too long over emotion as his characters cannot, a brisk runtime and a distinct objective holding Utoya firm to reality, even if its fictionalized qualities hold it back from the truth.

Greengrass' 22 July, however, is a slave to the truth in detail, though not in spirit. These are manufactured accounts of real events, Greengrass' screenplay poring over them inanely with an intent to elicit maximum neo-liberal grandstanding. No doubt that Norway's reckoning with the politics of the massacre itself carried inevitable political import, nor that the West's subsequent collective reckoning with far-right extremism has too, but it's in striving for well-meaning emotional clarity and simplicity that 22 July comes across crude and, indeed, over-simplistic. Poppe's movie made the tragedy evident indirectly, and trusted its audience to respond intelligently; Greengrass' belabours the point, spelling it out in laughably on-the-nose dialogue, sacrificing the essential believability that Utoya places as a paramount concern. If there's a palatable Northern-European earnestness to both movies, only one steeps itself in it, and to disqueting effect.

Isak Bakli Aglen and Jonas Strand Gravli in 22 July

It's the sheer insincerity of Greengrass' work here that stings the most, the fallacy of his concern for the West's fight against right-wing extremism when there's a bit of moderate pontificating to do. 22 July foregrounds the terrorist that Utoya pointedly obscures, giving his crackpot bigotry a platform, positioning his opinions against that of Norway's horrified, reasonable, mainstream liberal society as a kind of debate. This might have seemed like a smart, sensible strategy seven years ago, but has become known to those of us with seven (or more) years' experience in pushing back against fascism as a counter-productive strategy - a platform is a platform is a platform, regardless of one's intention to allow a fascist to hang themselves with their own rope. Give fascism the visibility and it'll merely use that rope to snag and embolden follower upon follower, and rebutting its bile with inspiring montages and tear-stained monologues about inner strength isn't just bad art, it's bad politics.

Better to keep one's nose out of the politics - Utoya gives no such platform to fascism, and makes both films' points much more convincingly. 77 people were murdered by one person on that day in Norway, more than half of them children, and the circumstances of those murders speak for themselves. No amount of snappy editing or Netflix-funded gloss can improve upon that, nor any amount of clunky dialogue nor bad acting (and believe me, it's not just 22 July's decision to have its Norwegian actors perform in English - there's just some truly heinous acting in this movie). Utoya - July 22 has the respect for the people whose plight it represents not to elaborate on the nature of their experience, and the respect for its audience to permit us to think what we will think, to know what we already know about it, to recognise that murdering innocent children is reason enough for our unformed, undiluted hatred. Even this white liberal knows that.

Image Credit: Image.Net; MovieStillsDB

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