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July 22

Year: 2018
Production Co: Scott Rudin Productions
Studio: Netflix
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden

If there was any filmmaker who'd do the events of the title justice, it's Paul Greengrass. Both his style (shaky handheld, verite realism, urgency, pulse pounding tension) and his choice of subject matter (United 93) are perfectly suited to the story of the racist nutjob who blew up a government building and then fled to an island campground to gun down as many teenagers as he could in Norway in 2011.

The only questions remains; why? As one review quite accurately says, the movie gives a platform to the guy who did it. On the other hand, if you only know the headlines, it's a much more human (and humane) and far more emotional way into what happened than reading the Wikipedia article if you're that curious.

I have no idea what the real Anders Brevik looks like, but Anders Danielsen Lie is absolutely perfect. He has a stone faced, only slightly angry expression, a wisp of jawline beard and the terrible, dispassionate banality with which he goes about not just the atrocities of the titular day but conducting himself in court, arguing his political motivations, and the cold certainty in his hatred is enough to make your blood freeze.

We see the island resort of Utøya welcoming its young guests, doing orientations and get-togethers amid the pleasant summer weather, cutting to Brevik loading a van with homemade explosives at a remote farmhouse. He drives home to where he lives with his aged mother (ignoring her), publishes his manifesto/racist rant online, loads himself up with guns, drives to the Oslo City Centre and leaves the van in front of the parliament building where it detonates and rocks the capital, killing eight people.

While chaos descends across the city, Brevik (dressed in a stolen police uniform) drives to Utøya, telling the managers he's there to secure the island in case of further incidents. When one of them challenges him, he opens fire. The feeling from then on is the same one you had all throughout United 93 (and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center), of hollow-throated doom at what's to come, and knowing Greengrass isn't the kind of director who'll gloss over it.

The human story comes as we follow a few kids on the island we've already met a few times, among them Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli). He, his brother and a bunch of other kids hide at the base of a cliff after Brevik has been through the camp, picking off victims like fish in a barrel – the worst is when he comes across a group holed up in a classroom-type building, telling them to stay away from the windows like he's there to help them, then walking in, declaring his drivel and telling them they're all going to die, then opening fire (the one time Greengrass mercifully cuts away).

When he spots Viljar and the others and they flee, Viljar thinks only of saving his little brother, Brevik's bullets tearing through him and leaving him barely alive.

As Viljar's parents search frantically for him throughout Oslo's hospital system (and meet plenty of parents who aren't so lucky), Brevik – who's surrendered peacefully when the cops have realised what's going on and descended – is put through the police and criminal booking system of Norway law.

Perhaps the most interesting character of the film is his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden). Apparently because of his having defended a neo-nazi in court before, Brevik asks for him personally for representation.

I didn't really understand why Lippestad was compelled to take Brevik's case, especially when (as we see in the film) he and his family were subjected to subsequent threats and harassment. But he's a studious man committed to his job no matter what the social cost and in the final scenes he makes it quietly, unambiguously clear what he really thinks of his client.

But as Brevik, Lippestad and his team try to figure out a defense against what was thought of at the time as indefensible, Viljar gradually tries to heal and come back to some semblance of life, a gulf now between he and his brother but a new bond having formed with classmate Lara (Seda Witt), who lost her sister to Brevik's rampage.

There are a lot of underlying themes about the legal notions of guilt and innocence, everyone deserving legal defence no matter how warped or evil and how everyone has their right to a voice and opinion. It's also interesting to see it play out in what appears to be a fairly accurate representation of a liberal European country – in a place as hot blooded as the US, where violence is the rote response to any sleight, Brevik probably wouldn't have survived beyond the first court appearance before getting lynched.

It's those themes and questions Greengrass might have been interested in posing, and he just happened to do so using his unique skillset to depict something nobody really wants to witness, let alone go through. There's a place for a much wider debate about whether fictional cinema is the place for this kind of thing or it's just morbid disaster porn, but whatever the social intent, you can't fault the filmmaking for its ability to elicit a pure visceral reaction.

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