Bowling for Columbine (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

While there will always be a debate about the authenticity of Michael Moore's documentary techniques, there's no arguing that Bowling for Columbine succeeds equally well as a provocative essay on gun violence in America and an opportunity for the writer/director to engage in some heavy self-promotion. Whether you like him or hate him, it's impossible to deny Moore's charisma and persuasiveness as a showman. He takes a thesis and runs with it, and, while some of his conclusions may be a little farfetched, his probing often pays unexpected dividends. Bowling for Columbine is Moore's most effective film to-date - a vastly more compelling piece of pseudo-documentary movie-making than either the overrated Roger and Me or the ego-inflating The Big One.

Viewers attending a Moore film should be aware that the director has a history of "faking" scenes. So, unlike in a more traditional documentary, not everything that appears on screen can be believed. Moore is skillful enough that we don't recognize when we're being fooled. It took a Film Comment expose by Harlan Jacobson to unearth all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans in Roger and Me. So, when Moore ambushes Charlton Heston during an interview, there's no guarantee that this wasn't set up beforehand (although I don't think it was). Also, when Moore starts barging into houses in Toronto to determine whether Canadians keep their doors locked, this could easily have been arranged before the cameras rolled. We just don't know. Moore claims one thing; his history argues another.

Regardless of how dubious its documentary tactics may be, Bowling for Columbine is powerful, thought-provoking, and, upon occasion, bitingly funny. Moore's easygoing tone never makes the viewer feel threatened - just as his rumpled personal appearance puts his victims and adversaries at ease. He's a predator in disguise. The movie offers something for everyone. Even those who disagree with Moore's politics will find themselves thinking during and after the movie. Whether you agree with the director's conclusions isn't the issue - it's that you recognize the problem.

The point of the film is to determine why gun violence, especially that of children on children, is rampant in this country. At first, Moore is guided by the precept that easy access to guns is the cause. And, despite being a card-carrying NRA member, he is more than willing to point the finger at Heston and his cronies. But, along the way, Moore makes a discovery - there are more guns per household in Canada than in the United States, yet the death toll, even when adjusted to consider the unequal populations, is much lower. This forces Moore to conclude that, while the ready availability of firearms in the United States may be a contributing factor to the high number of gun-related homicides, it's not the primary reason.

Eventually, after conducting various interviews and hopping around the country (and out of it), Moore suggests that fear, enhanced by the media's obsession with death and violent crime, may be the root cause of America's death-by-gun problem. Americans are frightened. They live in gated communities and lock their doors at night. They sleep with loaded guns under their pillows because only a firearm at-ready gives them a sense of security. Fear makes people jumpy and apprehensive, and more apt to resort to violence. And there's no cure for it. It is a societal ill that is perpetuated by the evening news and reality TV shows like "Cops".

Once in a while, Moore goes down a rat hole. He tries, with limited success, to blame the death of a six year-old girl on a work-for-welfare program. If you follow his convoluted logic, it makes a certain kind of sense, but he's stretching things. A more likely culprit is the uncle who didn't keep his gun safely locked away from the youngster who brought it to school and fired it. Strangely, Moore never addresses the issue of gun responsibility and safety.

The film features a number of fascinating interviews. The one with Heston is the most predictable, since there's probably nothing that he and Moore agree upon. The most unusual is probably the chat between the director and James Nichols (the brother of Oklahoma City co-conspirator Terry Nichols), who makes a comment along the lines of: "The pen is mightier than the sword, but you have to have a sword for when the pen fails." Nichols also makes a statement about weapons-grade Plutonium that has to be heard to be believed. Other interview subjects include Columbine alumnist (and co-creator of "South Park") Matt Stone and goth rocker Marilyn Manson (who was blamed in some circles for the Columbine tragedy).

Moore engages in his share of grandstanding stunts, one of which surprisingly pays off. He brings two Columbine survivors to the Michigan headquarters of K-Mart (the ammunition used to shoot them was purchased at a K-Mart store), and asks if the boys can return the bullets that are still in their bodies. The next day, K-Mart announces that, after a 90-day phase out period, it will no longer be selling ammunition. Moore is flabbergasted.

I can predict with a large degree of certainty that Bowling for Columbine will outrage viewers whose political leanings are conservative. In addition to portraying many gun owners in an unflattering light, Moore insinuates that the CIA was indirectly responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (a view that is bound to be unpopular, regardless of how it is presented). The film is at times laugh-aloud, viciously funny (provided you aren't among Moore's targets). But, above all, no matter how much you love or despise the messenger and his means, there's no denying that the message bears consideration and rumination. Imperfect as it may be, Bowling for Columbine is riveting stuff.

Bowling for Columbine (United States, 2002)

Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Matt Stone
Screenplay: Michael Moore
Cinematography: Brian Danitz, Michael McDonough
Music: Jeff Gibbs
U.S. Distributor: United Artists
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2002-10-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1