Image by Genevieve Jacobson, courtesy of MotoFilms
President Franklin D. Roosevelt rather memorably called Imperial Japan’s 1941 air raid on Pearl Harbor “a date which will live in infamy.” Seventy-one years and one week later, another infamous sneak attack rocked America to its core when the worst mass shooting of schoolchildren in U.S. history took the lives of six educators and twenty children aged six to seven at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The December 14, 2012, massacre shattered the suburban existences of the surviving 28,000 inhabitants of the New England town, with repercussions far beyond its borders.
In the beginning of the documentary Newtown, directed and produced by Kim A. Snyder and produced by Maria Cuomo Cole (daughter of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo), a series of 911 calls accompanies video of a police officer who was among the first responders to the scene of the horrific crime. He declines to share graphic details about the carnage he has just witnessed.
The film briefly describes the shooter (whose name is never mentioned during the eighty-five-minute film) and subsequent efforts to lobby lawmakers to pass tougher gun legislation, but doesn’t dwell on these factors pertaining to the tragedy. Instead, this is a portrait of collective grief that paints a compelling picture of traumatized townsfolk. Newtown examines how rampant gun violence affected these Connecticut Yankees, and whether there’s a road back from the misery into which they were plunged.
Needless to say, the survivors are overwhelmed. Similar to war-deployed soldiers, many who lost loved ones in Sandy Hook’s senseless slaughter have been afflicted with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and, perhaps, survivor’s guilt. As the filmmakers skillfully and sensitively show, these collateral victims of the Newtown massacre cope in different ways. Can they ever find that elusive thing called “closure”?
Unsurprisingly, denial is a coping mechanism used by some parents. Francine Wheeler—two years after her son Ben was cut down—told the filmmakers:
“I was looking at a letter to the families recently and they were naming every victim and my brain said maybe he won’t be on the list and maybe he’ll just be alive . . . you know, these crazy things.”
Nicole Hockley lived across the street from the deranged killer who, armed with semi-automatic weapons including a Bushmaster rifle and Glock pistol, murdered her child Dylan. She and her third grade son Jake face the daunting task of getting on with their lives. But Nicole remains unable to open the letters, cards, and gifts that well-wishers have sent. They remain in closed boxes, gathering dust.
Doting dad Mark Barden, whose seven-year-old son Daniel was among those gunned down, suffers from recurring scenarios of terrified little Daniel’s final moments. Newtown is a tale of a tragedy from which, inside people’s minds, there is no escape.
The original Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as the shooter’s home, has been demolished. While the latter remains open space, the school was reconstructed on the same site. Can the lives of those left behind be rebuilt? Perhaps, but the road back differs for each of them.
David and Francine Wheeler, whose younger son Ben was consumed in the Sandy Hook conflagration, make the conscious decision to have another baby, in part so their firstborn won’t grow up as an only child. One father turns to parachuting as a release.
To remember their fallen first grader, the Bardens have launched an annual athletic contest, the Daniel Barden Highland Mudfest, to honor their playful son, with proceeds donated to charities.
Mark Barden and some other bereaved Newtownites have also turned to the political arena in an effort to help prevent similar calamities. They encounter obstacles every step of the way.
President Barack Obama’s calls for a renewed assault weapons ban and expanded background checks—legislation most Americans favor—have stalled in Congress. At least on the federal level, the NRA and gun lobby have proven implacable. On the state level, anti-gun-violence activists including Nicole Hockley have had some success—New York, Maryland and Connecticut have passed enhanced gun control measures. Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, some states have actually relaxed gun restrictions since the massacre.
Newtown reminds us that twenty-first century America remains plagued by gun violence, and that not even smalltown U.S.A. is safe.
Director and producer Kim A. Snyder is a veteran documentarian whose Welcome to Shelbyville—about Muslim Somali refugees in the United States—was broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens series in 2011. Producer Maria Cuomo Cole—whose brother Andrew is New York’s current governor and brother Chris is a TV newsman—executive produced 2012’s Oscar-nominated The Invisible War, about sexual abuse in the military, and 2015’s The Hunting Ground, about sexual assaults on campus. Fil Eisler wrote Newtown’s main title theme and was its music director, recruiting more than a dozen composers to contribute music to the film. The Czech-born Eisler composes music for Hollywood movies and TV shows, including Fox’s Empire and Showtime’s Shameless.
Newtown theatrically opens in New York on October 7 and in Los Angeles on October 14, followed by a national rollout. For more info, see http://newtownfilm.com/.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.