directed by Michael Moore
by Walter Chaw The most successfully provocative film of the year, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine nonetheless hurts itself with its questionable tactics and Moore's inability to leave certain pulpits alone, but the documentarian succeeds in providing a canny, often brilliant, examination of the root causes of America's amazing propensity for gun violence. The picture goes beyond a condemnation of "gun nuts"--and beginning as it does with an extended interview with James Nichols (the nutball brother of nutball Terry Nichols, who, along with Timothy McVeigh, was convicted of the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing), it's not always certain that it will.
Moore steers conversation away from easy targets like backwoods militias and the tragedy of hick-ism into thornier areas like the marketing of fear and, if only incidentally, the dangers of too much self-esteem. The ultimate value of the piece lies in its ability to veer the dialogue regarding firearms off course from the standard right-wing/left-wing platitudes; in its taking a new tactic in addressing the issues of racism and the media; and in how it provides an example of a film that is at once an intellectual exercise and a personal showcase.
Marked by devastating footage lifted from the security cameras at Columbine High School and paced by two interviews with madly disparate personalities with surprisingly similar functions (spokespeople for their respective polarities), Bowling for Columbine reaches its intellectual high with a very thoughtful Marilyn Manson and its queasy nadir with a doddering Charlton Heston. When asked what he might say to the kids at Columbine should he have the chance, Manson responds: "I wouldn't say anything, I'd listen. It's the only thing that no one's done for them." Easy to read as rhetoric, but the impact is one that suggests the shock-rocker speaks from painful experience and a surpassing empathy. When Heston, surrounded in his pool house by a framed poster of Touch of Evil and a lithograph of himself in Ben-Hur is asked why he headlined NRA rallies in towns just days removed from recent gun-related atrocities (Littleton post-Columbine, Flint post-Kayla Rolland), his boggle-eyed incomprehension is at once disturbing and pathetic.
The security footage raises the interesting spectre of our penchant for bloodthirsty, voyeuristic reality television. Moore expands that discussion into the realm of racism when he interviews the creator of "Cops", while the chat with Heston has driven many to accuse Moore of badgering an old, demented man. Both moments are exploitive, no question: the former for its shocking immediacy (which, in a way, excuses it as exploitative nature--it's important that we remember these visceral lessons), the latter for Moore's one-camera, Broadcast News looped reaction shot trickery and occasional indulgence in grandiose symbolic gestures. The complaint against Moore is that his movies often become showcases for the filmmaker rather than entirely fair representations of the subject, an egotistical quirk on unpleasant display when Moore makes nebbishy Woody Allen noises as Dick Clark (the owner of the restaurant where the mother of a six-year-old murderer was employed in one of those brilliant welfare-reform programs) flees the scene rather staying to offer comment.
Embarrassing moments of vanity aside, Bowling for Columbine makes trenchant points across the spectrum of America's social problems. It dispels myths about the sources of violence in the United States, defining Moore's gift for transforming difficult issues into a matter of common sense. The filmmaker and author is well south of P.J. O'Rourke in terms of eloquence and insight, more of a compiler and gadfly than a true satirist, though he's entertaining all the same. And while Moore's shtick begins at times to feel like sideshow, Bowling for Columbine remains an exceedingly well-made documentary with enough clear-eyed meat to shame both sides of the ideological divide. It's not the best film of the year by a long shot, yet it's the first one that demands to be seen and, once seen, dissected among friends. Originally published: October 12, 2002.