“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.
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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.