‘Under the Gun’ is an Activist Documentary That Preaches to the Choir

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Let me just get this out of the way: I’m a liberal minded guy that believes our nation has a serious gun problem and needs to act on the issue before more innocent lives are lost. That having been said, documentaries like Under the Gun will do little to aid the never-ending debate that surrounds the issue of guns in America. This activist documentary won’t shed new light on any issue, and wades deeper into the waters of propaganda than into an honest examination of the culture surrounding firearms in our nation. As much I agree with what Under the Gun is trying to convey, I can’t condone its incredibly self-righteous tone and its preference for the emotional over the intellectual. Upon the film’s conclusion I was left wondering exactly who would see the gun debate with a different set of eyes than when they started the film. The answer: nobody.

Stephanie Soechtig’s film which is narrated by Katie Couric, the two having previously worked together on the dietary activist documentary Fed Up, opens with an ominous statistic: “Before this film is over 22 people will be shot.” From there the film goes into an opening credit sequence of historical moments, including the assassination of John and Robert Kennedy, as the apocalyptic music blares. Whatever hand Soechtig and Couric were playing is painfully obvious before the film is really underway.

Once underway, Under the Gun basically tries to tackle every aspect of the gun issue, simply biting off much more than it can chew. Couric talks with the families of victims from mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Isla Vista, as well as former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford who was shot while speaking in public back in 2011. Each of these people make emotional pleas for a change to the status quo and they are each right in calls for action, but the film itself handles these in such a heavy handed fashion that tries to lean exclusively on emotional manipulation – idyllic scenes in slow motion of people happy and smiling before cutting away towards horrific images of mass shooting aftermath or extended home videos of the victims.

If Under the Gun were more focused on the aftermath of these horrific events these moments might not come across as forms of emotional manipulation, but when it delves into the history of the NRA and the political operations of the gun lobby it becomes apparent that Under the Gun is really a one-sided affair that is inelegant in its arguments. When reviewing the history of deregulation that loosened gun laws in the country, Soechtig and Couric point to the NRA and Congress, completely omitting that these laws would have to be signed into law by the president, who at the time they’re discussing was Bill Clinton. The idea that these issues may have, up until recently, a bipartisan descent into absolute deregulation is a subject that people behind Under the Gun are unwilling to consider. It’s truly a shame as the film is seemingly intent on undermining its own arguments at every available turn.

There are brief moments where Soechtig and Couric go across the aisle and speak to those on the pro-gun side of the debate, interviewing members of Open Carry Texas and the Virginia Citizens Defense League (the latter interview segment Couric has since apologized for due to some misleading editing). These people only seem to appear in the movie as a “Hey, aren’t these folks crazy?” instead of earnestly trying to understand their point of view. Under the Gun isn’t a movie about understanding either side of the issue as it’s really a film that’s intent on preaching its message over and over to the point where any detractors would be worn down that their only recourse would be turning it off.

Each mass shooting is a reminder that our collective apathy leaves more innocent lives to be lost. The time for action is well overdue. But if we can’t afford the status quo with our national relationship to firearms, why should accept the status quo from our activist documentaries that wish to change the hearts and minds of the public. Under the Gun won’t change anybody’s minds and its political leanings are so horrendously unsubtle it actually pleads the viewer to vote for specific candidates at the film’s conclusion – crossing the line from subpar documentary into active propaganda. Practically every argument employed by the film has been around for years and has done nothing to ease the NRA’s absolutist stranglehold on the gun debate. Emotional pleas and statistics haven’t changed a thing since Aurora, Sandy Hook, or the plethora of other mass shootings that plague American society, so why would anyone expect them to be more effective in documentary form? Of course, this is a film that features the unintentionally hilarious testimonial of an anti-gun advocate who recalls the moment to drive them to action: “I did the only thing I knew how to at the time – I started a Facebook page.”

While writing this review, news has broken of a shooting on the UCLA campus. Once again, we have to confront the reality that there’s a human toll for our collective inaction towards firearms. Activist documentaries aren’t real action. Preaching to choir doesn’t motivate change.

Under the Gun
  • Overall Score
2

Summary

Heavy handed in its message and execution, Under the Gun is another activist documentary that preaches to the choir without finding any new insights into the ongoing gun debate.

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