In 2002, Michael Moore made waves with his documentary Bowling for Columbine. It took Moore’s irreverence and applied it to the dark topic—gun violence—that no one was talking about even though it should have been at the forefront of our minds because it dealt with public health and safety. Moore’s personality worked both for and against the film, and viewers were just as likely to applaud his dark sense of humor as they were to chastise the final scene where he confronts Charlton Heston with the picture of a child who was killed by a gun.
It’s 14 years later, gun violence continues to haunt America, and director Stephanie Soechtig tries to tackle it with her new documentary Under the Gun. In place of Moore’s unwieldy humanism, Soechtig brings in cold calculation. She’s got stats, she’s got graphics, she’s got the issue covered from multiple angles and even tries to reach out to gun owners who are opposed to any legislation. But even her attempts to find the human angle—comprised entirely of speaking to parents who lost children in gun violence whether it’s in mass shootings or daily violence in the streets of Chicago—come off as part of a finely tuned argument, which is fine. And yet for all the attention made to the design of her argument, she’s missed the central question at the heart of the debate: why can’t there be any compromise on this issue?
Even though the film begins with narrator/executive producer Katie Couric sitting down with pro-gun rights advocates, Under the Gun is firmly a pro-gun control advocacy documentary. Almost of the information presented is about making the case for gun control, and Soechtig provides it in a very professional, collected manner. To her credit, the organization of this information will help pro gun-control advocates better make their arguments (go to underthegunmovie.com for more), and she even shines a light on some details that viewers may not know about. For example, I doubt many people are aware that federal law prevents the ATF from creating an electronic database of serial numbers, and so they have boxes stacked from the floor to ceiling and outside in shipping containers. The law was written by the gun lobby to curb the possibility that the government could “take away” people’s guns even though as one talking head points out, the Supreme Court already ruled on this issue and said that it would be unconstitutional for the government to confiscate citizens’ firearms.
So this raises the question: Why would anyone be paranoid that the government is coming to take his or her guns? Under the Gun reduces the debate to two sides: rational gun control advocates who support measured regulations such as tightening background checks, shutting down “Bad Apple” dealers (sellers who knowingly fund a black market), etc. versus emotionally-minded gun-rights advocates who buy the NRA’s line that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and that mass shootings are the result of too few guns rather than too many.
Which creates the problem of trying to use a reason-based argument to appeal to people making emotionally based decisions. They feel the government is out to take their guns. They feel that someone could attack at any time and they need to be fully armed. They feel the bad guy with the gun is right around the corner, so in order to be a “good guy” (a.k.a. “a hero”), they have to be fully armed at all times. These feelings aren’t based in empirical reality, and there’s nothing in Under the Gun that will sway pro-gun rights advocates. Soechtig, for all of her fancy graphics and grieving parents, doesn’t have a counterargument to the insanity that the right to own a weapon is more valuable than all of the innocent lives that have been lost. For some people, the cost of liberty will never be too high as long as other people pay for it with their lives.
While I respect that Soechtig doesn’t want to delve into the emotional aspects (beyond the heartbreak of seeing the young lives cut short by gun violence and the parents who will be forever broken by the loss of their children), her movie needs more than it has. I’m sure some people reading this review will leap into the comments section and start raving about the 2nd Amendment, and those people will never give this movie the time of day. Under the Gun won’t change minds and it doesn’t help the sides understand each other. The best it does is give a bit of a boost to people who want this madness to end.
Click here to catch up on all of our Sundance 2016 coverage thus far, and peruse our other reviews below.
- Captain Fantastic
- The Free World
- The Fundamentals of Caring
- The Hollars
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Love & Friendship
- The Lure
- Manchester by the Sea
- Morris from America
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
- Other People
- Sing Street
- Southside with You
- Swiss Army Man
- Under the Shadow