Film Review: Newtown

Rather than a documentary about a town in the aftermath of a school shooting, 'Newtown' is the filmmaker’s biased narrative of that village as one defiled by an outcast who is never named by her or her subjects.
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Kim A. Snyder’s documentary Newtown begins with a summer parade down Main Street. Adorable, pint-sized majorettes and baton twirlers march first. Then a float appears, on which sits the lovely, blonde homecoming queen. As she passes before the camera, she turns toward it and smiles. The sequence unfolds in slow motion, and with no sound. Snyder freezes the frame, and then abruptly shifts to a police cam, and to citizens’ calls to 911, the first responses to the December 14, 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. This perceived defilement of Norman Rockwell’s America is Snyder’s Newtown in a nutshell.

While Newtown conveys the confusion of that terrible morning, and the shock and grief that followed, through archival footage and interviews with parents, a police official, and teachers and staff members, the documentary offers no insight into the shooting in which twenty first-graders and six adults were killed inside the school. Its other great shortcoming is a lack of reporting—Snyder provides no straightforward chronology of the events, nor does she recount the circumstances of the shooting, so when a teacher recalls what some in the school heard over the “loudspeaker,” audiences will not know, at first, that she refers to the principal’s death. How and when the principal died, and why it was heard over the loudspeaker, is conveyed briefly, and disjointedly, by different subjects.

The documentary’s various methods of recalling the shooting and its aftermath, such as testimony to camera, group gatherings, and parents’ speaking engagements, appear inconsistent, and sometimes are inconsistent and muddled because of Snyder’s ineptness in introducing her subjects. A priest is offered no introduction at all, nor are the women who gather to discuss the shooting. One teacher’s testimony is based on a reaction to archival audio of herself that neither she nor the filmmaker bothers to contextualize. The roles some subjects played on the day of the shooting are left unexplained until the second time they provide testimony.

When Newtown veers off into individual parents’ narratives, it is difficult to recall the spouses, and which child victim belongs to which set of parents. At some point, because the documentary so frequently devolves into repetitive material, as well as into the sort of minutiae that grieving parents are understandably prone to but that works against the flow of storytelling, audiences will find themselves wading through too much verbiage to appreciate a few profound reflections on the nature of grief. These actually occur through what is left unsaid by school custodian Rick Thorne and first responder Sergeant Cario, especially when the filmmaker apparently asked Cario to describe what he found when he initially arrived on the scene.

At several junctures, Snyder moves entirely outside the realm of documentary. For instance, she shows the father of a child victim removing snow from a driveway, interspersed with three flashbacks of the day of the shooting. That represents a usurpation of the father’s identity, the filmmaker’s attempt to make him into a character in her own narrative. More disturbing is Snyder’s persistent bias, that this horrific incident is paradise interrupted, a town forever changed by a troubled young man nobody in the film will name—not even the filmmaker. The one time Adam Lanza is referred to, it is indirectly and by the mother of a child victim; the woman points to the lot across from her home where the Lanza house once stood, making no effort to disguise her hatred.

What is elided from Newtown is the fact that the Lanza family, Nancy and her husband and two sons, moved to Newtown in 1998 when Adam was six years old. He attended school there, and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and other conditions that eventually made him an awkward and reclusive child, although one with no history of violent behavior. His parents divorced, and Mrs. Lanza disagreed with school officials over how Adam should be educated. Forced to withdraw him when he was 16, she home-schooled Adam for his GED. He was an honor student in the Sandy Hook School District less than five years before he shot and killed 27 people, including his stay-at-home mom. In the months leading up to Adam’s crime, Mrs. Lanza was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and was struggling to figure out how her son would manage if she died.

Snyder, the producer-director of the documentary I Remember Me (2000), about her own chronic fatigue syndrome, began the Newtown project six weeks after the shooting, when she was invited to the village by an interfaith group seeking to hire a filmmaker. She did very little to expand on that commercial endeavor. Lacking every journalistic instinct, Snyder never questions her subjects about the fact that the village voted to demolish the Lanza home, along with the elementary school. The aptly named Newtown literally forged a new town that superficially, and rather disturbingly, wiped away the physical evidence of violence, as though that would erase the collective memory of it, and of that child of Newtown named Adam Lanza.

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