The Documentary Newtown Grapples With the Memories of Sandy Hook Without Exploiting Them

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Photo: Sundance Film Festival

“I don’t think anybody needs to know specifically what we saw,” a Connecticut state trooper says, with eerie calm, early on in Kim Snyder’s documentary Newtown. Some details, he notes, are better left unspoken when they’re this dreadful. He’s talking about the carnage he witnessed upon entering Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. (It was, apparently, the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single individual, behind 2007’s Virginia Tech massacre, and the deadliest mass shooting at a primary school or high school. How unbelievably fucking twisted that we now have so many of these things that we can rank them?)

So, how do you handle a subject like Newtown? Twenty young kids and six adults died in that 2012 school shooting, and such a slaughter is too difficult to contemplate. Can such a thing be turned into meaningful art? Snyder’s film, which premiered here at Sundance to clearly moved audiences, walks a very fine line. It confronts, but it doesn’t exploit. It’s about one of the most horrifying events of recent years, and yet it’s defined by its austerity, its sense of quiet. It is as much about the complex, dull horror of memory as it is about the brute, sharp horror of that day.

Snyder builds her film out of a tapestry of talking heads, home movies, and a spare amount of news and surveillance footage. Her interview subjects are mostly first responders (cops, EMTs, dispatch operators), witnesses, and parents. It should not surprise anyone to know that the film is devastating — at times almost unbearably so. But it’s a complicated kind of grief. It would be easy to go for the emotional jugular by describing, in detail, the events of that day. Instead, Snyder focuses less on the kids themselves and more on the people who have to live with their memories — both their memories of that day and their memories of their loved ones.

One man who lived near the school talks about how he emerged out of his door that day to find a group of stunned little kids. “I could tell they’d been crying, but they were quiet in their abject fear,” he recalls. A doctor who had to examine the corpses remembers describing what three bullets from an assault rifle will do to the body of a small child — as a way of explaining why there weren’t a lot of wounded kids to tend to. A school administrator recalls, in disbelief, that they had to create a spreadsheet in order to manage 26 funerals.

We talk a lot about moving on from grief — and another film at this year’s Sundance, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, also deals with the sometimes-superhuman effort required to do so. But is there something wrong about holding on to grief? Is there something shameful about hanging on to objects and reminders, about indulging in them, even if they make it harder to move on? 

These are uncomfortable questions, and Newtown raises them when it lets the parents speak. One father talks about how he has, almost like an alcoholic, “secret things stashed around the house,” such as a football helmet with a couple of stray locks of his dead son’s hair. They say time heals all wounds, but to this man, time is a kind of enemy: “I still dread that every day I live, I’m one day farther from my life with him,” he reflects. Meanwhile, a mom, who has become active in the gun-control issue as a way of honoring her son’s memory, talks about how traveling around the country is easy for her, “because I can imagine that he’s back home.” Newtown isn’t coy about what happened that day in 2012. But one might argue that it’s really a movie about all the days that came after, and continue to do so.