Eager to convince and assured of its purpose, the advocacy documentary “Under the Gun” tackles America’s persistent gun violence crisis with -- word choice intended -- an arsenal of information about why even modest fixes have been slow in coming. And, in visits with victims’ families from Newtown, Conn., to Aurora, Colo., to Isla Vista, Calif., it places an emphasis on the emotional toll of the scourge. Director Stephanie Soechtig’s passionately contended, slickly produced film may not sway the most fervid 2nd Amendment defenders, but in its problem-solving vigor could spur a lot of others who believe in change to make that call, join that group, or vote a certain way.
Partnering again with executive producer/narrator Katie Couric after their eye-opening food polemic “Fed Up,” Soechtig rolls out her figures – both statistical and human – like an issue-documentary maestro of sorts: The movie symphonically weaves through interviews with shattered parents who lost kids in massacres, a timeline of inaction on gun control, and footage of activists on both sides. There are the familiar faces, including shooting survivor ex-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. We see concerned moms in Colorado protesting grocery giant Kroger’s acceptance of open carry laws, but also a group interview Couric conducts with a citizens’ defense league of normal-looking people who truly think the government can’t wait to take away their firearms.
There’s a villain, of course: the National Rifle Assn. post-1977, when it shifted from being an apolitical gun safety group to a lobbying behemoth in the business of goosing gun sales through fear, and scaring reelection-obsessed politicians into "no" votes on any control measures. Soechtig is careful not to tar the rank-and-file membership, especially when it’s easy to make NRA head Wayne LaPierre look like a nonsense-spewing nut job with just a few sound bites, and you can show average members genuinely surprised to learn that someone on the terror watch list has the right to buy a gun.
As the movie points out (one assumes to the right-to-bear absolutists who might be loath to watch it), the Supreme Court has already enshrined private gun ownership as a right. What the filmmakers want to stress, through the film’s many interviewed supporters of sensible regulation, is that closing the gun show loophole and strengthening background checks are majority opinions in the country and worth the fight. In one surprising visual, we see the offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms awash in boxes of paper records, because a paranoia-driven NRA-pushed law forbids the establishment of a computerized ownership registry that would make tracking guns used in crimes infinitely easier. From there, the movie shrewdly shows the consequences of that law, segueing to Chicago’s stricken African American community, where parents in the group Purpose Over Pain make the heartbreaking case that while mass shootings invariably seize the nation's attention, gun crime in their lives is ongoing, often unsolved and rarely reported.
Like “Fed Up,” “Under the Gun” doesn’t need to use all its sleekly manipulative tactics so insistently. The music is overscored in moments designed to outrage or soften, and its sometimes clumsily handled interludes of grief don’t always fare as well against the sequences that fervidly push fact-driven arguments (like treating gun deaths as a public health issue). Seeing the list of NRA-cozy politicians who wouldn’t agree to be interviewed also allows one to briefly wonder what Soechtig’s movie would have felt like with their input. Angrier? Sadder? Weirder? Though the voices against unchecked, armed madness are dominant in “Under the Gun,” they form a resonant chorus for doing something, anything, about what kills an average of 33,000 people each year.
'Under the Gun'
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
MPAA rating: R for some strong language including a crude reference
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills