Film Review: ‘After Parkland’

Owen Gleiberman

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In “After Parkland,” a documentary about the school shooting that took place on Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Florida, leaving 17 high-school students dead and injuring 17 others, there’s a scene set at the Trump White House that bristles with personal grief and political rage. It’s one week after the shooting, and several students who survived the massacre, along with the parents of those who were murdered, have been invited to attend a meeting with President Trump. (There are parents on hand, as well, from the shootings at Sandy Hook, Columbine, and other locations.) The purpose of the meeting is to translate tragedy into legislative action, and Trump knows it. Early on, he says, “We’re going to be very strong on background checks.” Which, of course, is a scandalous lie, since within months it became clear that Trump, in full alliance with the NRA, had no intention of taking any action on background checks.

But you knew that already. What the footage in “After Parkland” reveals is a close-up slice of Donald Trump‘s emotional psychology. As the meeting unfolds, he says next to nothing; he sits there, listening, with a look of utter impassivity. A Parkland student, Sam Zeit, who was in Marjory Stoneland High School during the shooting, frantically texting his younger brother (who was near the killer), speaks at the meeting, fighting to hold onto his composure as he asks how it is that one can still enter a store, after Columbine and Sandy Hook, and buy an assault rifle. “In Australia,” he says, “there was a shooting at a school in 1999. They put legislation together, and they stopped it. So let’s be strong, and let’s never let this happen again. Please. Please.”

He’s preaching common sense and human decency, but the president listens without reacting in any way. Talk about building a wall! (His face is one.) Trump’s look is like a new version of the thousand-yard stare — what you see is that he’s a thousand yards away (from these words, these feelings, this moment).

Then one of the fathers, Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was murdered in the Parkland shooting, gets up to speak, and he is angry. Pollack is handsome in a bullet-headed way, with a tough demeanor (he looks like he’d be played in a movie by Bruce Willis), and he doesn’t mince words: “It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it.” He looks Trump in the eye. “And I’m pissed!” He’s shouting now. He means business. When Pollack says, “We’re going to fix it,” Trump’s reaction is to offer a silent thumbs up, which is a bit creepy when juxtaposed with his dead-eyed gangster fish face. He’s going through the motions (just barely), but he wants to get it over with. He’s not trying to pretend to care.

“After Parkland” is a documentary that chronicles the grief, anger, and storm of protest that gathered in the wake of the Parkland shooting, and the film records this experience in a moving and memorable way. After you’ve seen it, you know more about the meaning of this kind of horror than you did before, and that’s a vital thing.

Yet that doesn’t mean “After Parkland” is a movie without problems. It was co-directed by two producers from “Nightline,” Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, and in many ways it unfolds like a network television-news segment that goes on for 90 minutes. We spend time with students like Sam Zief, who’s disarmingly eloquent on the subject of how much the fear lingers after an event like this one, and David Hogg, who became well-known after the shooting as the founder of the Never Again campaign against gun violence. Hogg, an intense fellow who resembles the young David Byrne, has a sister who lost four friends in the shooting, and we see what it looks like when a family like theirs has to move forward in a state of shell shock.

The film also devotes a great deal of time to the memory of Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the shooting. Joaquin, who we see in video clips, was an intensely charismatic basketball player, the kind of student other kids want to be around. His warmth and popularity make it notably wounding that his life was cut short, yet the way the film focuses its gaze on him starts to grow a little uncomfortable. It’s the kind of logic, frankly, that has corrupted network news: “This kid was a star ­— let’s play him up!” Yes, but the fact that his personally magnetic qualities are used, so explicitly, to highlight the tragedy of his loss subtly undercuts the tragedy of the loss of the other 16 kids.

Apart from the students, the two central figures in “After Parkland” are bereaved parents: Joaquin’s father, Manuel Oliver, who launched the slogan “Change the Ref” as part of the non-profit action group he and his wife created to combat gun violence, and Andrew Pollack (from the White House meeting), with his agonizing wrath. These two, it turns out, have radically different ideologies when it comes to what should be done. Oliver wants to focus on gun control; Pollack, on issues of “school safety” (which means, to a degree, allowing school officials to carry guns themselves). The movie should have honed in on that difference and treated it dramatically, because it lays bare the contradictions that continue to gridlock the gun debate. But “After Parkland” isn’t interested in exploring contradictions. The movie takes a standard activist view, giving us a straight-up chronicle of the March for Our Lives rallies that took place on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C., and in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, and Detroit.

The film is doctrinaire in a way that I overwhelmingly agree with. , especially for a documentary about an event that was covered in the media as abundantly as the Parkland school shooting. As you watch this film, there’s an elephant in the room, and that’s the shooter himself — he is never mentioned, or even named. It’s as if bringing up the reality he represents would intrude on the grief, and would in some way violate liberal dogma, which is that the focus must remain solely on the gun issue.

I agree that that issue is transcendent, but it’s not the only issue. It’s my belief that we must, as a nation, talk about why these shootings keep happening, apart from the fact that young people have obscenely easy access to terrible weapons. But to focus, in any way, on the shooters has become a conservative tactic — a way of deflecting the argument away from guns. And it shouldn’t be. In the 2000s, I watched a three-hour “Frontline” episode about the Columbine massacre that focused on the lives of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and it was one of the most illuminating documentaries of that decade. “After Parkland” has its gun politics, and its aching heart, in the right place, but we need more from a movie about this subject. We need to ask how where the contemporary American heart of darkness is coming from.

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