Bowling for Columbine (2002)

D: Michael Moore

Effective but occasionally manipulative documentary polemic exploring the fraught relationship between American society and guns. The film examines the social, political, and economic contexts of the situation, specifically detailing the events and consequences surrounding the Oklahoma bombing, the Columbine shootings, and the death of 6 year old Kayla Rolland in Flint, Michigan at the hands of a six year old classmate armed with a .32 semiautomatic pistol.

The film is a definite improvement over Moore's last, The Big One, where juvenile pranks and self-promotion detracted from its potential to raise valid issues about American corporate policies. Filmmaker Michael Moore has still yet to achieve the balance which seemed to come naturally in the making of Roger & Me. His combination of comedic ambush journalism, righteous commentary, and his drawing of linkages between seemingly disparate facts or conditions which he forms into aspects of a problem has proved enormously successful in various formats, but the filmmaker has only rarely found the rhythm and rootedness which made Roger & Me both so terrifying and heartbreakingly funny.

This film has a strong basic argument which it backs up with ample visual and aural evidence: American society, Moore argues, is wracked by social and political uncertainties which are fuelled by a mixture of economic and media interests eager to keep people uneasy so that they will buy more 'protection' in one form or another. This produces a climate of fear which makes those armed with guns more likely to use them in what they perceive as self-defence, a thought pattern which demonstrably extends to the highest office in the land. The film is even able to incorporate footage of 9/11 and take a walk through several decades of American intervention in unstable political situations worldwide, drawing a large circle around the issues which makes sense on a broad level.

Moore persuasively documents the currents in American society which have shaped its attitude to gun control, including the thorny issue of the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms. Avowedly one-sided, his argument ranges from interesting comparisons between American and Canadian cultures, evidence of cultural scapegoating featuring an interview with Marilyn Manson, and statistical analysis of employment, gun control, and crime statistics, to interviews with individuals from different backgrounds who bring interesting perspectives to the discussion. While much of it is solid journalism, some of it is as selective and speculative as ever. A filmmaker has a right to make choices and selections of course, but there needs to be a good reason for them rooted more in the structure of the overall argument than in the 'shock' value. Sometimes this latter is not the case with the work of Michael Moore.

Moore is as eager to draw attention to himself as he is to the issues, because, in a sense, he is the issue, at least as far as the general audience is concerned. A recognisable figure now to the point where he is thought as much a comedian as a filmmaker, Moore discovered with Roger & Me that the element of the personal and the use of humour served him well in getting the audience on his side. There are echoes of the earlier film in the use of home movie footage in Bowling for Columbine and in the film's return to Flint for its final section detailing the death of Kayla Rolland. This section also provides the film with its most touching scene, where while interviewing one of the teachers in the school where the child was shot, he apologises to her as he turns away from the camera in tears, the emotion of the moment overcoming her. In this single scene Moore provides the audience with a glimmer of his sense of responsibility for individual's feelings that many of his scenes of corporate ambush lack.

Though the balance is better than in The Big One and in his TV specials, much of the film is still manipulative and given over to attention-getting stunts. For example, in order to make a very debatable point about the role race has played in the problem of gun control, Moore resorts to a gimmicky short animation by the creators of South Park (natives of the same Denver town where the Columbine shootings took place) 'explaining' American history. Also, in what is intended to be the movie's clinching scene, Moore ambushes NRA President Charlton Heston with a photograph of young Kayla in a pretty unsavoury way. Though there are definite connections between the culture of guns and the NRA, it is disingenuous of Moore to have to resort to such a cheap and ultimately meaningless trick to make a point he had essentially already made. Heston leaves the interview looking like a tired, polite old man who has done his best to answer difficult (and arguably unanswerable) questions while Moore plants the photograph on Heston's drive in a self-servingly grand gesture which seems both vain and futile.

The film on the whole is overlong and meanders in places. Though the overall argument is compelling, the audience may find themselves wondering if and when the film has become redundant. By now Moore's succession of books, TV shows, and various serio-comic antics have raised a lot of awareness, but they have also bred a sense of complacency. Sensational journalism is risky in the apathetic postmodern age, where audiences are amused by smug jibes at American society and see films like this as an end in themselves.

Does Bowling for Columbine really open eyes and inform future real-world actions and attitudes? Or is it just providing cheap laughs for people for whom the issues facing American society are little more than a stick to beat them with at parties? Do people really listen to the concerns Moore is trying to voice, or are they too busy laughing to even care? In encouraging a sense of the absurd, Moore is frequently guilty of losing touch with the roots of his method, and Bowling for Columbine only barely escapes the flippancy which marred The Big One.

This kind of filmmaking, though popular, is still a long way from the kind of socially active documentary which was once the stock-in-trade of American independents. It has a place in the palette of the contemporary cinemagoer, but the promotion of social responsibility is a difficult task which demands skill and delicacy. With Michael Moore, sometimes it is hard to distinguish between his ambush antics and what they do on MTV's Jackass. That can't be right.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.