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Review: Newtown (2016)

Newtown (2016)

Directed by: Kim A. Snyder

Premise: A documentary about the aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The film includes interviews with the parents of the victims as well as other members of the community.

What Works: Mass shootings have become an unfortunate fixture of contemporary American culture and the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has become one of the signature events of this decade. While there have been so many mass shootings in recent years, some deadlier than Sandy Hook, the horrific details of this particular event have caused it to stand out. In the shooting, a young man murdered twenty elementary school children in their classroom as well as six staff members. At the time, the incident caused considerable grief on the part of the nation and the inaction by lawmakers has been a point of frustration for gun control advocates. The 2016 documentary Newtown, filmed three years after the tragedy, spends time with the families and neighbors of the slain children as well as the surviving school employees and other members of the town. The film alternates between testimonial interviews and footage taken before and after the shooting, including home videos and professionally filmed sequences such as local events commemorating the shooting. The documentary is a portrait of a community grappling with the aftermath of a tragedy and the filmmakers do almost everything right. The movie is respectful of its subject matter and maintains an even tone. The facts of the case are impactful on their own and don’t warrant a lot of dramatic intervention in the form of music cues or manipulative editing techniques. The filmmakers also show good judgement about what details the viewer needs and what we don’t; we’re spared the gruesome details of the crime scene because the grief of the survivors is enough. The filmmakers also address the political dimension of Sandy Hook without becoming consumed by it. This is not an anti-gun screed but the politics of gun control are unavoidable. The movie addresses this, and specifically the way lawmakers did not act, and puts this in the context of a community trying to restore order. In the context of a culture that is seemingly besieged by mass casualty gun violence, Newtown is a time capsule of a film. It documents this tragedy and its aftermath in ways that are specific to this particular event while also capturing a phenomenon that plagues American culture at this time. 

What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of Newtown use black insert shot in the sit-down interviews as a way of demarcating edits in the testimony. This technique is jarring but not in a way that helps the film. The black inserts interrupt the momentum of the interviews and come across clumsy and amateurish in what is an otherwise polished production. The filmmakers also conscientiously avoid talking about the gunman and speculating about what his motives may have been. That decision makes sense given that Newtown is about the survivors and how they go on with their lives after the tragedy. But the killer is nevertheless a part of this story and as an examination of a community, the filmmakers miss an opportunity to consider how the gunman fit into it. 

DVD extras: None.  

Bottom Line: Newtown is a heartbreaking but respectful documentary about the 2012 tragedy. It is a well-made look at the grief of the survivors that in years to come will also be a valuable artifact from this era.

Episode: #686 (February 18, 2018)