The Price of Freedom takes a timely and riveting long view of the many events and shifts that led to the rise of gun culture and gun laws (or lack thereof) in America. Judd Ehrlich’s sixth documentary feature follows American history from its infancy through the rise and the dominance of the National Rifle Association today. In doing so, he traces the construction an American identity inextricable from unfettered access to increasingly destructive and widespread guns.

Ehrlich, a seasoned documentarian with a clear and heartfelt take on his subjects and a keen social awareness, takes on a giant issue with clarity and a broad awareness. The director starts with deeply personal and intimate (if brief) accounts of several parents who lost their children to shootings. Sandy Hook, Parkland and Aurora are amongst the many mass shootings that punctuate and loom over this documentary, as well as the names of individual shooting victims and the surrounding lives blown up by these events. By introducing us to individual faces and experiences, the director draws us into the personal stories behind the debate over gun laws and rights. From here, Ehrlich moves on to a riveting, well-explained but still dynamic review of American history, from the founding fathers and the Constitution through each stage of American history to the 1960s onwards, when gun rights fundamentally shifted around the social changes of that period.

Ehrlich keeps his documentary moving at a brisk 94 minutes. Historical events and complex analysis are well-summarized but not skimmed over. News clips and a nice range of expert opinions are utilized to shape a coherent and well-researched, clear story. Despite the obvious motivation of the filmmaker, the documentary still feels level-headed and balanced, not tipping over into sensationalism or simplification. NRA leaders are interviewed, as well as victims of gun violence, researchers and major players in the gun rights/laws debate today, from legislators to President Bill Clinton, Rep. Gabby Giffords, activist X González and more. The range of voices allows for a nuanced perspective and understanding of guns in America. The choice of music is understated yet invigorating, propelling the narrative forward. The use of footage of people escaping mass shootings and mourning afterwards is affecting but not exploitative. These are brief moments of horror that bring home the visceral experience of gun violence. During scene transitions, Ehrlich uses elegant graphics; he blacks out the screen except for the cutout numbers of the particular year, revealing the footage of that year behind it. These understated but dramatizing effects heighten the sense of dread and propel the narrative forward.

Editing in documentaries can influence how the story is absorbed as well as the meaning of the footage. Director Judd Ehrlich effectively presents footage in a cogent and straightforward way, not relying on emotions and anger and pain, but not denying them either. It’s a tough balance to find.

The Price of Freedom has a ton of ground to cover and numerous strands to draw together. There are the terrifying and gut-wrenching shootings of the last decade that are burnt into our collective memory. There is the NRA, and its rise to power. How did it form? How can we break down its rise, forgetting our assumptions of its all-powerful and seemingly eternal presence to understand its construction? There is the psychological power of the myth of guns. The specific ways the NRA has influenced and shaped politics in profound ways. There are the racial aspects of gun rights and desire to control African-Americans. The film does a great job of weaving in these varied aspects into the tapestry of modern-day gun violence and gun laws in America.

Throughout the film, those of us less knowledgeable about the NRA will be astonished by revelations of the murderous past of the NRA’s most influential figure Harlon Carter, the power of the NRA lobby and the reality of Stand Your Ground laws. Facts are presented to us within a broader context. Also, the conceptual ideas of the film are handled excellently, most clearly the American myth around guns and how the NRA has “wrapped their arguments in the American flag.” We are presented with our own numb assumptions and asked to dissect them.

The latter half of the film focuses on the modern NRA, and its influence during the Clinton, Obama and Trump eras. It makes a clear connection between guns and Trumpism as well as Black Lives Matter protests, and it offers hope with the new breed of young gun activists fighting for their lives.

Ultimately, there might have been a stronger focus on race and guns in America, as well as even more black voices and other people of color in the film. Perhaps the personal stories of parents could have been dwelled upon longer. But this film does convincingly address gun violence and the NRA and makes highly recommended viewing for all.

A riveting and cogent breakdown of historical, social, racial and political changes that have led to the rise and influence of the NRA and its sway over gun laws in American politics.
89 %
Worth Price of Admission
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