'Under the Gun': Sundance Review

Under the Gun still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An extensive primer preceding a call for action.

Katie Couric narrates and executive produced this documenatry about gun control directed by Stephanie Soechtig.

If Bowling for Columbine felt like a solitary documentary call to (very much proverbial) arms almost 15 years ago, this year's Sundance alone has seen premieres of four films (including the short doc Speaking Is Difficult, the dramatic feature Dark Night, inspired by the Aurora, Colo., shooting, and the nonfiction feature Newtown) about America's gun violence epidemic. But the highest-profile of the bunch is arguably Under the Gun, for which director Stephanie Soechtig again teamed up with her Fed Up executive producer and narrator, Katie Couric.

At almost two hours, the film tries to pack in a lot of background information, statistics and experiences from survivors and family members who remained behind after some of the mass shootings that have occurred since Columbine. It’s a sobering, collage-like overview of a problem that sadly hasn’t much changed since Michael Moore’s angrier and more provocative (if perhaps less rigorously journalistic) feature came out, though it’ll be tough for Gun to match that project’s impressive $58 million global haul, however necessary a film like Soechtig’s remains.

Under the Gun opens with the heavily symbolic shot of an empty chair and the message that “22 people in America will be shot” before the film is over. The first of several animated scenes offers a quick history lesson using a timeline that’s enriched with news headlines and archive footage, showing how gun violence, -control and -legislation have evolved since Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers were shot. A later animated sequence traces the history of the NRA from nonpolitical group to powerhouse lobbyists.

At regular intervals, the film switches gears from an overview of broader history and trends to very specific and individual experiences, starting with the father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, who was killed in Newtown, Conn. Mark Barden sits in his car, close to the school where his first-grader lost his life several years ago. “I haven’t been this far down the road since that day,” he confesses, fighting back his tears. In a sit-down, direct-to-camera interview in their home, both of Barden’s parents recount what happened that day, with some of the details — such as the fact the police advised them against identifying their son for their own good — positively heartbreaking.

Details are what make these stories so upsettingly relatable: A father now uses the car of his dead son, a student shot near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, to stay close to him, and a mother in Chicago doesn’t allow her basketball-loving teenage sons to walk two blocks to a court out of fear they’ll end up dead like her youngest son, a multihyphenate creative talent who was shot in a church parking lot. Particulars such as these enrich the film’s narrative and implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, of course) act as an emotionally powerful argument for stricter gun-control measures.

There’s also a large pool of experts that pop up regularly, generally for very short soundbites and not all of them vital to the film’s general arguments. Most of them are pro-gun control, though several, such as young mom Victoria Montgomery of Open Carry Texas, try to shine a light on what it is about guns that appeals to them and why regulating gun ownership would be a bad thing. A group of blustery members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, however, suddenly remain painfully quiet when Couric asks them the hard questions.

As a narrator, Couric is only occasionally heard. More than a single overarching story or argument, Soechtig, her editor Brian Lazarte and their co-writer Mark Monroe cobble together a mosaic portrait of a complex problem that’s more diffuse but tries to illustrate the breadth of the crisis.

Indeed, between the classically shot and conducted interviews, expert soundbites, slick presentation of contextual history, score that appropriately alternates between menacing and mournful, and of course Couric’s involvement, the film most strongly resembles a supersized episode of 60 Minutes. Though it has some room for arguments from both sides, the level-headed film isn’t in any way balanced politically. Clearly, it never could be, though the feature — unlike Moore’s — is too respectful to suggest that, for example, it might take the death of one’s own child to immediately understand the importance of stricter gun-control measures.

Under the Gun is also not balanced in the way it progresses from exploring the roots, background and current state of a phenomenon — in short: total legislative gridlock, President Obama's recent executive order notwithstanding — to offering possible solutions. Somewhat oddly, this is something that only comes up at the very tail end, starting with a ballot initiative in Washington for obligatory background checks that offers a small, citizen-driven victory against the relentless, highly financed lobbying machine that is the NRA (one senses this short sequence could have been the basis for a more positive but also activist film, albeit one with a much narrower scope). Though she is briefly featured, U.S. Congresswoman Robin Kelly, who represents a large swath of Chicago's South Side, also strangely never gets an opportunity to explain her congressional Kelly Report on Gun Violence in America, the first of its kind, which tries to offer solutions to many of the problems unearthed here.

In the end, Soechtig and Couric try to rally the viewers to finally do something themselves, with one of the parents of the victims stating very clear that she “doesn’t want your sorrys or your prayers, just your action.” The website for the film offers more background information and points in the direction of websites of many of the action groups featured for those who want to get involved.

Production company: Atlas Films
Narrator: Katie Couric
Director: Stephanie Soechtig
Screenplay: Mark Monroe, Brian Lazarte, Stephanie Soechtig
Producers: Olivia Ahnemann, Joshua Kunau, Kristin Lazure, Stephanie Soechtig
Executive producer: Katie Couric, Regina K. Scully, Michael Walrath, Michelle Walrath
Director of photography: Josh Salzman
Editor: Brian Lazarte
Music: Brian Tyler
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 110 minutes