Sundance Film Review: ‘Newtown’

Newtown Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Kim A. Snyder's Sandy Hook documentary is an elegant, devastating portrait of a town in mourning.

Newtown,” Kim A. Snyder’s documentary on the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, is not an explicitly political film. Structured more like a requiem than a polemic, the doc ebbs and flows in accordance with the cycles of mourning as it speaks with parents of the murdered children, as well as the teachers, priests, doctors and neighbors afflicted with survivor’s guilt, elegantly and devastatingly capturing the tenor of a small town that will carry these scars for at least a generation. Though it does briefly address the particulars of the gun-control cause which several of the victims’ families have taken up, “Newtown’s” politics are purely implicit, showing us just how much misery one bad guy with a gun can cause, and proves all the more effective for it. Some viewers — particularly parents — may find its unflinching portrait of grief almost too much to bear, but Snyder’s film deserves to be seen, and acquisition attention from doc distributors or TV ought to be forthcoming.

There have been bloodier American tragedies in the current century, but perhaps none can match the abject, senseless horror of what transpired in this idyllic Connecticut town three years ago: 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, and six of the school’s adult staffers, all slaughtered by a disturbed, heavily armed 20-year-old who subsequently killed himself. (The shooter’s name is never spoken; nor does his image appear, a choice that feels entirely appropriate to the film’s objectives.) “Newtown” opens with harrowing 911 recordings and police dash-cam footage from that fateful morning, and though the film never delves into the forensic details of the massacre, the thousand-yard-stare from a state trooper who surveyed the crime scene as he demurs, “I don’t think anyone needs to know specifically what we saw,” says everything a viewer needs to know.

From here, we’re introduced to Snyder’s three primary subjects: Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel; David Wheeler, father of victim Ben; and Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan. Home videos, some shot shortly before the massacre, give us glimpses into their lives pre-cataclysm, and by following them for nearly three years, Snyder details their gradual, quiet attempts to cope, whether by having another child, staging a memorial concert or, in Hockley’s case, crisscrossing the country sharing her story.

The film eschews strict chronology, allowing its subjects their own digressions as they inevitably return again and again to the trauma that’s never lurking too far outside the frame. Wheeler turns philosophical, pondering movingly on the randomness of life and “the tiny, minor questions that become huge questions when you can’t sleep at night.” Barden and Hockley form a friendship as they speak at hearings and visit Washington, and share a sense of shock when the post-Sandy Hook attempt to expand background checks for gun purchases fails in Congress.

Yet this is not ultimately an issue movie — plenty of other films, including other films at Sundance this year, have tackled the intricacies of U.S. gun policy, and it would take hours to unpack the psychosis on display in the various insane Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, which understandably go unmentioned here. What Snyder is most interested in is the continuing series of aftershocks that one act of savagery can have far beyond its most visible epicenter. Aside from the mourning families, Snyder trains her camera on the well-meaning neighbors who never know how much to interfere; the school’s shattered custodian; the volunteer EMT who slowly realized the extent of the damage from the back of her ambulance. One teacher recalls compiling a spreadsheet to keep track of all 26 funerals. Even footage of a homecoming parade through the center of town is suffused with melancholy. Beyond the numbing statistics and the legislative stalemates and the debates over Constitutional intent, this is what gun violence looks like, the film seems to say; this is what it does.

Scored by Fil Eisler, who recruited 16 fellow composers to contribute variations on his themes, the doc features hauntingly beautiful music — variously mournful and meditative — which works perfectly in tandem with editor Gabriel Rhodes’ intrinsically musical sense for when to cut, building a very rhythmic film that neither flinches nor overwhelms.

Sundance Film Review: 'Newtown'

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Production

Produced by Kim A. Snyder, Maria Cuomo Cole. Executive producers, Nick Stuart, CarolAnne Dolan, Regina Scully, Mara Sandler.

Crew

Directed by Kim A. Snyder. Camera (color), Derek Wiesehahn; editor, Gabriel Rhodes; music, Fil Eisler; sound, Bob Hein.

With

Nicole Hockley, Mark Barden, David Wheeler, Francine Wheeler, Ian Hockley, Bill Cario, Sally Cox, Robert Weiss, Rick Thorne, Laurie Veillette, William Berg, Hugo Rojas.

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  1. Steve Kenner says:

    Sandy Hook was a terrible tragedy. For those who doubt, I can only guess they cant handle the cold dark truth. For those with a simplistic answer, don’t you think if it was that easy that it would have been done already and maybe we would not have these tragedies happening again and again around the world? Please – to the conspiracy theorists (Yes it’s a theory, not a fact) do yourself a favor and learn to become a critical thinker. Solving this issue is not political, but necessary. The problem is and was that a mentally ill person (maybe) or murderer was able to obtain easy access to an assault rifle and used it to kill little children and their teachers with a death toll over 25. We as a society must find a way to prevent this from happening again – or next time it might be somebody you care about. Your child, your parent, your friend, your spouse, or you.

    I wish it were a fraud or had been a hoax, I wish there were easy answers. We must work together to solve this problem because if we can’t take some measures to protect our children, then humanity is lost.

  2. Jay says:

    Sandy Hook has been proven over and over again to be a fraud.

  3. Sicofit says:

    can somebody wipe this film review off?

  4. Dirk Canyon says:

    Thank you dinophile for posting. I thought by now the tide would be turning and more level headed people would see thru this absolutely insulting charade. So very frustrating to see ridiculous comments such as tina’s and sophict’s, but I truly believe you can not convince those that are still asleep. They will awake when ready, and realize with painful clarity, just how obvious and deep the deception has been.

  5. dinophile says:

    Third time I’ve commented, and my comments keep being wiped off.

    What are you afraid of, Variety spooks? Looks like you are afraid of the TRUTH.

    As I said twice before, the only spreadsheet needed in respect of Sandy Hook is to keep track of the millions of dollars which have been paid out to the participants in this hoax.

    I recommend the video “We Need to Talk About Sandy Hook,” as well as the book edited by James Fetzer, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.”

    America, wake up. We are being lied to all the time, about everything.

  6. Tina Finn says:

    Thank you for this documentary.. Every American needs to see this film.. I am hoping..no praying that they will rethink the gun control issues.. I followed the parents as they traveled to Washington DC to change the minds of the Senators.. To no avail the gun bill did not pass.. If this had happened to their children I believe the republicans would have been the first one’s screaming from the Hill..pass stronger gun control laws..help families the are experiencing problems with the mental issues of their children or parents… WE need to change….

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