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Oscars: ‘Newtown’ Returns Gun Debate to Documentary Race, 14 Years After ‘Bowling for Columbine’

Along with several other films, Kim A. Snyder's shattering feature about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre seeks to generate more than thoughts and prayers.

Newtown

“Newtown”

Abramorama

In his Oscar-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), Michael Moore confronts Charlton Heston and Kmart executives, Michigan militiamen and the producer of “Cops,” but his quixotic search is for the structure itself, the undercarriage of American violence. Though his starting point is the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, in which two students murdered one teacher, 12 classmates, and injured 21 others, Moore spins a dense web of historical connections and geopolitical comparisons: A montage of American imperialism from the overthrow of Mohammed Mossedegh to the rise of Osama bin Laden, set to “What a Wonderful World”; interviews with ordinary Canadians baffled by the American obsession with crime. “Bowling for Columbine” is, in short, the filmmaker’s most chilling and prescient polemic, framing the United States’ gun epidemic as the logical consequence of our “culture of fear,” and its concomitant economy of terror.

Nearly 14 years on from Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech, in which he sagely warned of “fictitious times” and was roundly jeered by the audience, the gun control debate is once again poised to figure in the Oscar conversation—in part, of course, because gun violence still amounts to a public health crisis, one that’s gone largely unaddressed by lawmakers. Though Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown” (Abramorama, Oct. 7) and A.J. Schnack’s Oscar-eligible short “Speaking Is Difficult” (Field of Vision) dispense with Moore’s agitprop sensibilities, both offer a stark reminder of the result of political inaction, which is to ensure more death.

Combing through the wreckage of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 first graders and six educators lost their lives, Snyder’s film is, first of all, a shattering portrait of communal grief. As the camera floats past suburban homes and manicured lawns, or captures a surviving sibling’s scrawl on the wall where his brother’s height was once measured—”WOULD BE HERE”—”Newtown” marshals an intimate, mournful power, as desperate as a funeral dirge. It respects the Sandy Hook library clerk’s wrenching question by acknowledging that there is, perhaps, no answer: “How do you grieve for 26 people at the same time?”

As Snyder follows the families of three young victims—Daniel Barden, Ben Wheeler, and Dylan Hockley—through the unimaginable aftermath of that horrific day, however, “Newtown” emerges as a blistering, if tacit, indictment of the nation’s broken promise to “never forget.” In part, this is a function of the families’ green-ribboned pleas for the passage of gun safety legislation, but it is also a byproduct of the film’s stricken force. “You could feel the emergency in the air,” one Newtown resident recalls, referring to the volunteer firehouse where Sandy Hook parents waited for news on the day of the shooting. “It will forever, forever be in my mind.”

Four years later, with meaningful gun control at the federal level still in the future, this is the most important achievement of “Newtown”: To bring back to mind the sorrow we felt that December, and to ask why it failed to generate more than the usual thoughts and prayers.

Speaking Is Difficult

“Speaking Is Difficult”

Field of Vision

Constructing its political argument from wrenching personal details—Hockley’s mother, Nicole, shows Snyder a room piled high with the gifts and well-wishes of a public outpouring she hasn’t been able to process—”Newtown” points, along with “Speaking Is Difficult,” to the power of restraint; after being bombarded by constant news coverage of shooting after shooting, it may be that the more combative “Bowling for Columbine” has gone out of fashion.

Schnack’s 16-minute examination of gun violence in America, from the attempted assassination of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to the attack on Dallas law enforcement this summer, thus manages to suggest the relentlessness of the problem by stripping it bare. Each occurrence is rendered in simple, dreadful terms: Against images of the sites of recent mass shootings, white titles listing location, date, and numbers killed and wounded, Schnack sets 911 calls, snippets from police scanners—even, on occasion, audio of gunshots and swarming sirens recorded as events unfurled. Moving backwards from the most recent to the most distant, the film becomes its own litany, its own dirge, long before Giffords, sitting before Congress, recites the title. The repetition of the same scenario across the United States, in churches and small businesses, in schools and nightclubs, suggests the murmur of supplicants, a plea for mercy to the gods of carnage.

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One hopes, in a similar vein, that the cumulative effect of political pressure from gun control advocates soon transforms thoughts and prayers into policies and laws. If nothing else, “Newtown,” “Speaking Is Difficult,” and several other 2016 films have brought sustained attention to the issue: In addition to Katie Couric and Stephanie Soechtig’s controversial “Under the Gun”—which drew criticism, and a lawsuit, for its selective editing of interviews—there’s Robert Greenwald’s Oscar-eligible documentary “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” which screened last week for members of Congress, Craig Atkinson’s expose of increasingly armed police, “Do Not Resist” (in theaters), and John Madden’s upcoming narrative feature “Miss Sloane,” starring Jessica Chastain as a powerful gun control lobbyist.

As “Bowling for Columbine” argues, the “culture of fear” is meant to convince us that gun control is an impossible issue, political poison. Now more than ever, though, the lesson of Moore’s in-your-face broadside is clear: Speaking is difficult, perhaps, but that makes it all the more necessary. We’ve already been silent too long.

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