“We’re all terrified of forgetting what he looked like or sounded like,” says David Wheeler in Newtown, Kim A. Snyder’s transfixing documentary portrait of collective grief and resilience. Wheeler, like many of the bereaved parents and siblings interviewed for Snyder’s film, finds some comfort in old photos and home movies, in his case anything that offers a glimpse of his son Ben. For the rest of us, for those of us lucky enough not to have lost family or loved ones to America’s endless, inexcusable streak of public shootings, those images and that footage also serve a most needed function: Newtown is an act of memorialization, a demand that this most distractible of countries look close and continue to care.
To live in America today is to be buffeted by reports of tragedy, arriving and then fading much like the putative blockbuster movies do — there are too many, they’re each too much to take in, there’s always another that looks just like the last. Who can keep abreast of them all, engage fully with each and still manage to function? That’s especially true in cases of mass shootings, where American forgetfulness has a political purpose: It is in the interest of those opposed to meaningful reform of our gun laws that we always move on to the next heartbreaking news story.
Newtown makes you look. Not at the violence itself, the murder of 20 children and six adults at Newtown, Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. Snyder includes footage from police-car cameras as officers race to the school — one cop pumps a shotgun and rushes to the front door. But rather than recapitulate the details of the shootings, Newtown's parents describe the agony of being outside that school, waiting to hear. Or of the weeks after, trying to comprehend the loss while making it to two or three funerals a day. Words they have written to each other — texts, emails — sometime unspool over scenes of Newtown from above, a steady drone flight over Connecticut colonials, the streets haunted by absence.
Newtown shows you again and again what has been lost and what the survivors have done to hold on. “I still dread that every day I live I’m one day farther away from my life with Daniel,” says Mark Barden. Francine Wheeler says in the film that she now signs cards from her family “Love, David, Francie, Nate, Maddie and Ben’s spirit.” “If I don’t write that, I feel like people are going to forget him,” she says. Nate Wheeler, Ben’s older brother, has with a pencil brought Ben’s spirit into the future: “Would be here,” Nate has written on the wall where the Wheeler children’s height had been marked each year. Nate’s mark anticipates Ben having grown a foot or so since the last time the family measured him — November of 2012, just weeks before the shooting. Now is the time for your tears — just as it was four years ago.
There’s a cold fury to Snyder’s film, as there must be. Many of these parents have become activists for gun reform, but American life, of course, has ground on without heeding them. Newtown honors their fight and notes the refusal of congress to act, but above all else the film is a study of how to — and what it means to — remember while still persevering. Here we witness people learning to live again, trying to find the shape of lives that now each have a hole in them. Those holes can't be filled in, and can't be covered up. The film isn't despairing, though — nobody here is falling into them, either.