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Sundance Review: Kim A. Snyder’s Emotionally Devastating Documentary ‘Newtown’

Sundance Review: Kim A. Snyder's Emotionally Devastating Documentary 'Newtown'

How do you make a film about the Sandy Hook Massacre in Newtown, Connecticut? How do you wrap your mind around 26 children and teachers gunned down in an elementary school with an assault rifle? It hurts to think about it, the concept too great too bear. Documentarian Kim A. Snyder undertakes this task of reckoning with the horror of December 14th, 2012 and its aftermath, in the film “Newtown,” to emotionally devastating results. 

It’s hard to speak critically about a film like this, because there’s no real way to detach from the emotion of the piece. It’s really the only choice for Snyder, to grapple with this unspeakable act through the emotional aftermath, because to speak to the cold, hard details and facts would just be too much. During an early interview, a state trooper who entered the school says no one needs to know the details of what he saw. Just the emotion. In their interviews, both the EMT at the scene and the attending ER doctor are rendered speechless by their memories of the day, staring tearfully into a blank void. The unspeakable nature of the act renders it unfilmable; the silence allows the horror to remain underneath the surface, unseen but still present, as it should be. “Newtown” seems to be saying that we should remained horrified by the events at Sandy Hook, we should not become inured to it. 

The opening of Snyder’s film is a breathtaking gut punch. A bucolic, dreamy small town parade heralds the start of the film before we are plunged into a hell of 911 calls and police dash cam footage from that day. This archival footage brings an immediate sense of panic and dread; it is chilling to watch. Followed by home videos of first-grader Daniel Barden’s holiday concert a few days prior, the terrible truth comes into focus — these victims were just so small, so innocent.

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“Newtown” never even speaks his name because it’s not about him. It’s about the children and who died, who they were, what happened to their parents and siblings. It focuses on three families of victims, all first graders: Daniel Barden, Ben Wheeler, and Dylan Hockley. If there’s a criticism to be found, it could be in the fact that the film could have found a wider array of people to focus on with so many victims, but there are many other survivors and their relatives who contribute interviews. The limited number of subjects with which Snyder goes deep allows for an even greater intimacy and honesty with them. All three are involved in gun-control activism, which could also contribute to their participation. But, to nitpick the selection would be to detract from how incredibly difficult it must have been for the Barden, Wheeler and Hockley families to open these wounds anew, to speak freely about their devastation. 

The thing that Snyder captures so well in the film is the exquisite beauty and inherent terror of parenthood — the unconditional love and complete lack of control. Many of the parents express a need to know how their children died, even as they know they can’t take it. Having had such a close connection to every part of their child’s life except for the moments of their deaths is something that nags at them. The families share a deep fear of forgetting their boys, the way they sounded and looked and their personality quirks. 

As a film, “Newtown” is inherently political. There’s no way to witness the aftermath of something so unthinkable without demanding to know “why” and “how.” But the political element never goes beyond the scope the film lays out; it’s all seen through the experience of these parents, who become activists in order to honor the legacy of their children. To do something because of the day that they lost their control over their children’s lives. 

There were 372 mass shootings in the United States in 2015. It’s possible to forget about one mass shooting when the next one happens. It’s possible to get used to it, to find it routine, quotidian. Snyder’s film argues against the forgetting, the brushing aside, the disassociation,  the drifting away of memory. Laying bare the continued aftermath of this event is a bit like putting a hand on a hot stove — feel this pain, get angry, don’t forget. This film is an important historical record, and an important reminder of an event in American history that could have changed everything, that should have changed everything. There’s no reason why it still can’t. “Newtown” is a crucial reminder of that. [A]

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