How Two of the Year’s Best Documentaries Put Gun Violence into Present Tense


Two of the year’s best documentaries have come out within the last seven days, and they masterfully complement each other, stylistically divergent but concerned, in their own ways, with the same subject. It’s easy to say this is a coincidence, and in the strictest definition, it is; they were not produced in tandem, and their landings at the same film festivals and in the same stretch of mid-October was certainly not planned. But the concurrency of their release can’t be chalked up to mere coincidence, as it speaks to a shared and pressing concern in our culture.

Keith Maitland’s Tower (out today) concerns the first mass school shooting in America, when a gunman went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower one day in the summer of 1966; he carried a sniper rifle, and he began firing at anyone in his sights, killing 18 people. Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown (released Friday) bookends that tragedy with the most horrifying school shooting of our time, the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The events of these films occurred nearly half a century apart. The stories do not feel that far from each other.

Tower takes a stylized approach, using rotoscoped animation (similar to that of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) to dramatize the events, and the eyewitness testimony of survivors, whose words are given to actors of approximately their age at the time of the tragedy. It’s a calculated risk, and one that could’ve backfired into abstract artsiness (or worse, cheap gimmickry). Instead, it heightens the memories, and the moments; one of the most disturbing images from the newsreel footage from that day is of the bodies laying on the concrete in the middle of that square, and of the pregnant woman shot but not dead who couldn’t move, while no one could come help her. The animation isolates them on that concrete, puts them adrift in a sea of emptiness, highlighting how very alone they were at that moment.

What’s more, the technique equalizes all of the material, and gives it extra intensity. For much of its running time, Tower isn’t looking back on the tragedy – it’s living in it, a tick-tock of an afternoon’s terror, as uncertain of its causes or its outcome as the people on the UT campus were that afternoon. We’re given just the barest details about them, and none about the shooter, all of which underscores the horrifying randomness of his actions. Lives are being led, and suddenly there are these gunshots ripping through the air, coming from nowhere, going anywhere, cutting through every other thought, sound, word.

Newtown’s opening sequence is equally harrowing. We’re first shown those most familiar images of small town Americana: a parade down Main Street, marching bands and baton twirlers and the whole nine yards. That tableaux is interrupted, as it was for the residents of that town, by the jarring intrusion of 911 calls, dashcam videos, whispered prayer, all overlapping with a palpable sense of chaos and terror.

Snyder’s film tells stories of the survivors who made it out and the families of those who didn’t, in sensitively constructed snapshots of their lives since “that day” (no one ever has to specify further). Snyder’s film keeps going back to that day, just as its subjects do, to the specific moments of it, in which parents had to ask themselves questions and contemplate outcomes that most of us could never imagine (and wouldn’t want to). Between those interludes, Snyder returns to these survivors, and gives them the opportunity to talk.

They do. It never seems as though she’s traumatizing these people by asking for their memories. Indeed, the words pour out, with a dynamism and urgency that ties in to one of the film’s recurring themes: that they are afraid of forgetting. They’ll never forget these children, of course, or what happened to them, but they’re beginning to lose little details, things about their faces, the way they laughed, their manner. And they know that once they begin to forget, there’s no hope that the rest of us will remember. Snyder’s filmmaking, in contrast to Maitland’s, is elegant but basic, and it needs not be more. She’s not there to dazzle us. She’s there to bear witness.

Similar self-doubt and guilt pops into the memories of the interview subjects in Tower, who recall their fear, their regret, and particularly their inability to act; “If I go out there, I may die,” one recalls thinking, and another notes that, in that moment, “I realized I was a coward.” Eventually, the actors playing these witnesses and survivors give way to the real thing, a transition of stunning emotional impact, as we move from observing the moment to looking back on it. It’s still emotional for them to revisit these memories. One survivor is asked what he learned that day. His answer is simple: “There are monsters that walk among us. There are people that think unthinkable thoughts, and do unthinkable things.”

The IMDb “Reviews & Ratings” page for Newtown is a depressing cesspool, taken over – before the film’s release, natch – by so-called Sandy Hook “truthers” who condemn the film as a “fictional documentary” and compare it to The Blair Witch Project. Their rhetoric is appalling. It is also, on some level, understandable. Pretending that this horrifying massacre was somehow staged, and that Snyder’s film is an accessory to that deception, allows these people an escape. It allows them to live in world where this didn’t happen, where this couldn’t happen, because somehow a conspiracy of that scope and heartlessness is more imaginable than the idea that monsters walk among us.

But they do, and this happened, and we’re going to have to reckon with it. The genius of Tower’s technique, coupled with its careful eschewing of historical markers and table-setting narration, is that it doesn’t allow us to think back on the UT Tower shootings as a distant memory; it makes it a thing that is happening right now, and continues to happen. And thus, both Newtown and Tower are set in the present. The question is if the world they show us will ever be in the past.

Newtown and Tower are out now in limited release.