No parent should have to bury a child. That’s the quote that will repeatedly run through your mind as you watch “Newtown,” Kim A. Snyder’s documentary about the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Twenty children and six adults died in the massacre, which was carried out by 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, who then killed himself. Prior to arriving at the school that December morning, Lanza shot and killed his mother, whom some blame for having taken her once-bullied, socially awkward son to shooting ranges and for keeping various weapons in their house.
Snyder (“Welcome to Shelbyville”) talks to a wide range of people who were touched by the tragedy, from parents to the school custodian, who says that “not an hour, not a couple of hours” go by without him thinking about it still. The director’s greatest focus is naturally on the parents of the deceased, having been granted access to their homes and everyday lives over the three-year period of filming.
The results are wrenching. Photos and home videos, some taken just a few days before the children were killed, comprise a substantial amount of the film, with the most painful capturing charismatic kids goofing around. The response of the adults, including Sandy Hook educators, differed: Some wanted to avoid the subject, whereas others yearned to know every detail. “I still have this need to know what he experienced,” says Mark, the father of a slain 7-year-old. “I don’t want closure,” says another, fearing that time will erase the memory of his child.
Nicole, who’d lost her first-grader, Dylan, makes frequent appearances in the film, attending gun-control events, support get-togethers, and anything else that keeps her proactively involved. The passage of time has messed with her head, too. She asks of her son: “Did he ever even exist?” But the most heartbreaking moment is perhaps when Nicole starts to say, “I remember when I saw him in his casket…”
Though the film doesn’t address it, rampant claims that the shooting was a hoax or a FEMA drill can be found online, with conspiracy theorists calling foul on the lack of details released to the public, from 911 calls (which are played at the start of the film) to the names of the deceased to the fact that the crime scene was torn down, with no record of a biohazard team cleaning up blood. Bill, a Connecticut state trooper who was on the scene, indirectly answers the accusations: “I don’t think that any of us that were in there feel that anybody needs to specifically know what we saw.”
“Newtown,” even coming nearly four years after the shooting, remains devastatingly timely. Though a Sandy Hook task force asked Congress to address gun violence, the Senate defeated the bill — and we all know how many mass shootings have come since then. The film and the desperate inconsolability of the people interviewed for it seem beg the question: What will it take for our country to effect change? How many more lives have to be lost?
An ER doctor sums up the problem, saying, “This is a public health issue.”
Dylan’s older brother, Jacob, describes the date as “the day hell came to his school.” And with testimony about the 150-plus shots fired, which along with screams were all heard over the school’s loudspeaker, that’s an accurate assessment. One cop took solace in seeing a teacher’s arm wrapped around Dylan’s body, knowing that he wasn’t completely alone. Still, the terror those children faced, revealed in the intimate and grueling details Snyder provides, is nearly beyond comprehension.
One interviewee expresses the experience as akin to how many in the U.S. feel about the Sept. 11 attacks: “There’s before 12/14, and after 12/14.”