Gun violence and in particular the epidemic of school shootings has generated pages and pages of dialogue over the past three decades, in print, on television, and through the halls of the institutions that America ostensibly considers most sacred. In many ways, “Bulletproof” offers a visceral counterpoint to all of that rhetoric; without voiceover or commentary, Todd Chandler’s documentary chronicles the efforts of schools and businesses across the country as they combat horrific active shooter scenarios, sometimes existentially but more frequently with militaristic force.
Unfortunately, it’s also a film that’s aiming for a target as big and vivid as the ones schoolteachers train on at a gun range in the hopes of protecting their students — which is kinda exactly why it needs at least a little bit of that dialogue for context, as a framing device, or even just a sense of perspective as our efforts to create a sense of security have seemingly intensified more of our collective fears than they have alleviated.
Chandler’s film opens with an active-shooter drill for teachers at a Texas high school whose district security expert has implemented a battery of defense mechanisms, tactics and of course weaponry to “protect” students and faculty. These include (but are not limited to) reinforced doors, security badges that identify all visitors in real time on an electronic map of the school, security cameras watching every angle of every room and a vault-like safe containing 22 AR-15s.
Remarkably, the students don’t seem especially bothered by all of the security measures — or at least their feelings aren’t closely examined — as they go about their routines, even while that chief officer acknowledges that no lockout or camera system would be a successful deterrent for an individual with the will and the firepower to stage an act of violence. Describing violent and anti-semitic graffiti that his officers found at another school, the security expert observes, “People will say that’s some kid playing. We can’t take that risk any more… the wolf is already in the henhouse.”
Next, Chandler chronicles the type of security-broker conventions that Oscar Isaac visits in “The Card Counter,” with the same level of military expertise, just applied to school safety. One vendor pitches an electronic flash grenade that won’t cause harm but can disorient an assailant long enough for a trained and steady-handed shooter to take him or her (but let’s be honest, it’s always him) down. At other booths, salespeople advertise bulletproof white boards, bulletproof desks, and even mini–panic rooms for students that their manufacturer assures the potential client they can build in any configuration.
After that, a young Palo Alto woman tells the story of her Wonder Hoodie, a Kevlar-lined garment she conceived in order to protect her mother and brother from danger in their neighborhood. After sewing dozens by hand at prices of $500 or more, she discouragingly discovers there’s no way for low-income people like her family members to afford them unless she scales up production with funds from gun manufacturers who agree to donate a number of them to high-risk communities.
Then there’s that first-grade teacher who decided to learn how to use a gun after one of her students naively asked what would happen to them if someone got through the door of her classroom. The instructors at her gun-preparedness courses offer gobsmacking advice like “Love the kids who are getting shot so you’re motivated to kill the shooter,” and quote Bible passages to justify trainees’ role as, one supposes, an instrument of salvation or even justice against evil.
Meanwhile, that security expert’s admission that none of this training or technology can guarantee students’ safety rings in the audience’s ears over each of these escalating, deeply upsetting scenarios engineered to protect them from harm. The same expert later admits he implemented most of the security measures because they were stipulated by the funding the school district received, and he would have preferred to create more social programs and mental-health treatment.
In Chicago, however, teachers lead students and each other through breathing exercises and de-escalation tactics to allow individuals to express their feelings and get them out in constructive ways; while these students worry about gun violence, their anxieties are tied more vividly to the disruption of their families, as one girl points out that the immigrant communities in her neighborhood are more frequently invaded by ICE agents than actual criminals. That said, the kids there go through metal detectors every day, and footage from the early 1990s shows security officers conducting invasive body searches. But when police suggest that sidearms are essential tools for safety, school board and community members strike down their fearmongering and harmful generalizations to keep their hallways from being fundamentally transformed by the addition of handguns.
One supposes that much of the connective tissue between school shootings and security measures and the military (or at least militarized police) industrial complex has already been explored more colloquially in Michael Moore’s documentaries and a host of others that have been released since he won the Academy Award for “Bowling for Columbine” in 2002. But in 2021, almost two decades later, is a more contemplative approach to these topics going to educate or motivate people more effectively than Moore’s shaggy, pointed outrage?
If America is truly as divided a country as the media claims, then many viewers will already have made up their mind before the first images unspool; as mesmerizing as Chandler’s approach is, it eventually becomes a Rorschach test for one’s beliefs and values about gun usage, school safety and all of the rest.
On one hand, you have a group of people, and a movement, whose ethos is “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and on the other, a decidedly more fractured but equally passionate bunch of people who hate guns, resist giving up civil liberties, think these precautions are a capitulation to fear, or simply think that there are better ways to combat these problems than doing so from behind the sight of an AR-15. Are they all right? Surely not equally. But what Chandler generates in emotionality, he leaves behind the rhetoric, or even specificity, to sway viewers to whatever side he may ultimately stand behind.
Ultimately, “Bulletproof” offers an upsetting look at the way that handgun sales, usage and culture exert so much control over policy and procedure. But without the willingness to connect the dots between his very powerful examples, Chandler creates the opportunity to indict America’s culture of violence and then disappointingly misses his shot.
“Bulletproof” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.