'Newtown': Sundance Review
Filmed over a three-year-period, a documentary chronicles a community's grappling with the fallout of mass violence.
“My surviving child” — are there many phrases as heart-wrenchingly loaded, as weighted with death and life and raw, unquenchable sorrow? That phrase, with its push-pull between past and present, is repeated in various iterations in Newtown. It crystallizes the emotional motif of the documentary, a sensitive and clear-eyed portrait of a community shaken to its core and persevering after one of the worst mass shootings in American history.
As the name of the Connecticut town where 20 children and six educators were massacred in their school, the film’s title itself is charged shorthand for gun violence. The three parents at the center of Newtown have become activists for gun-law reform, and questions concerning public policy flow naturally from any recount of the events of Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But the true subject of director Kim A. Snyder’s doc — one of several gun-themed features to premiere at Sundance this year — is the unimaginable grief, individual and collective, that continues to shape lives long after the news vans have departed and the headlines faded.
As with any story of devastating loss, it’s defined by an unbridgeable chasm between Before and After. Near the beginning of the film, Mark Barden, looking at a photo of his family taken shortly before his 7-year-old son, Daniel, was murdered in his classroom, speaks of “the last few days of life as we knew it.”
Through her intricate layering of home movies, with all their anguished tenderness, news footage and material she gathered over the three years since “12.14,” Snyder crafts a composite portrait that’s intimate but also humbled and respectful. For all the well-integrated musical contributions to the doc, there’s a sense of awed silence about it, particularly in the stark simplicity of the direct-to-camera interviews that Snyder conducts, well served by the spare elegance of d.p. Derek Wisehahn’s lighting and framing.
Snyder bears witness to parents, siblings, school employees and medical personnel — neighbors all — grappling with a new, unacceptable normal: It’s the permanent shadow of absence; the way the simple act of picking up kids from school is now fraught with apprehension.
The opening sequence of the doc is its most predictable, juxtaposing images of idyllic small-town life, albeit in slow motion and set to a thrumming score, with recordings of 911 calls from terrorized teachers in the midst of the shootings. The name of the killer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, appears briefly onscreen, in news clippings, but is never spoken aloud during the film. One or two interviewees refer only to “the shooter” — among them his neighbor Nicole Hockley, who lost 6-year-old Dylan in the attack.
Along with Barden and David Wheeler, father of murdered 6-year-old Ben, Hockley is a key figure in the film. She’s found a sense of purpose in advocacy work, and, in one of Newtown's many moments of breathtaking vulnerability, she reveals that during the trips out of town that the work sometimes requires, she’s able to entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, she’ll return home to an intact family — and a world in which 12.14 never happened.
There are references to such magical thinking in a number of interviews. The attack itself infiltrates dreams, and the dreamer can change its outcome. A young boy grows his hair long, the way his murdered best friend wore it.
A crucial, profound strength of Newtown is its refusal to rush toward “closure” as necessary, or even to suggest that it’s possible. There’s a striking lack of the bromides that usually abound in such contexts. However important faith might have been to any of the interview subjects, nobody utters words of reassurance wrapped in religion, not even Monsignor Robert Weiss, who presided over the funerals of eight children in a single week and speaks of a crack in the community’s foundation.
Among the interviewees are familiar faces from earlier reports, as well as witnesses who had not previously spoken to the media. Few can speak without crying. Connecticut state trooper William Cario doesn’t weep, but he’s drained and haunted when he insists that “nobody needs to know” the graphic details of what he saw in Sandy Hook.
Snyder and editor Gabriel Rhodes structure the film so that it moves out from the events of that December Friday toward the present, and then circles back. It’s an astute creative decision, in sync with the emotional lives of the survivors, who inevitably keep returning to that day, when, in less than five minutes, 156 shots shattered the morning. One mother recalls a teacher’s agonized words upon exiting the school. She was speaking of the surviving children: “They heard it all.”
Production companies: K.A. Snyder Prods. and Cuomo Cole Prods. in association with Transform Films and ITVS Pictures
Director: Kim A. Snyder
Producers: Kim A. Snyder, Maria Cuomo Cole
Executive producers: Nick Stuart, CarolAnne Dolan, Regina K. Scully, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Mara Sandler
Director of photography: Derek Wisehahn
Editor: Gabriel Rhodes
Composer: Fil Eisler
Sales: Preferred Content
Not rated, 83 minutes