Littleton and Beyond; Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" Explores America's Obsession With Guns and Violence
by David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
[Editor's Note: indieWIRE originally published this review in May 2002 as part of our Cannes coverage. The film is is being released this week on DVD.]
"Bowling for Columbine" explores more profound problems than "Roger & Me," the 1989 documentary that put Michael Moore on the filmmaking map. The question he tackled there -- why would a fat-cat corporation ruin a city with shutdowns and layoffs? -- had an easy answer: greed. This time he takes on America's penchant for violence and guns, a wide-ranging issue that eludes the clear explanation he'd like to find.
Moore bases "Bowling for Columbine" on a series of paradoxes. Firearms and mayhem are ingrained parts of the American scene, often traced to a legacy of violence predating the Revolutionary War, and to a love affair with weapons going back just as far. Yet countries like Germany and Britain have equally violent histories, and Canada couples a low murder rate with gun-ownership figures similar to those of the United States.
In his effort to discover why America dotes so much on guns, Moore talks to all sorts of weapon-toting patriots, from camouflage-clad members of the Michigan Militia to a brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and a napalm-happy suburbanite who tests homemade bomb recipes from "The Anarchist's Cookbook."
Moore also spends time in Littleton, Colo., where he persuades survivors of the Columbine high-school shooting to confront representatives from Kmart, which sold the bullets still embedded in their bodies. Farther north, he chats with Canadians about their country's low level of violence and barges into people's houses through the front doors they cheerfully leave unlocked.
Moore hasn't lost his knack for digging out oddballs from the sticks, with special interest in poker-faced PR people and small-time authority figures who don't know how to parry his sardonic questions -- like a state trooper who soberly considers whether a rifle-carrying canine might be culpable in an accidental shooting.
Such mordant vox-pop footage is juxtaposed with more sobering montage sequences, including tapes from security cameras in the Columbine cafeteria and news coverage of American military interventions over the past 50 years. In case you didn't notice, the most savage U.S. bombing in Kosovo took place the same day as the Columbine massacre.
The film's strongest argument is that most American violence is either legally sanctioned -- police actions, military operations, and the like -- or committed by citizens saturated with media-generated paranoia. Exhibit A is the hugely popular cable show "Cops," followed by nightly news programs with their "if it bleeds it leads" mentality, often permeated with a barely disguised racist subtext.
Moore uses a mosaic of TV news headlines to demonstrate media obsession with disasters du jour, from gang warfare to "Africanized" killer bees -- despite the fact that most of urban America is safe and even dull, as he shows by taking an uneventful stroll through much-maligned South Central Los Angeles. The real causes of crime, according to "Bowling for Columbine," are rarely dramatic and seldom newsworthy: social inequities, cultural anxieties, and welfare policies that force poor single mothers into minimum-wage jobs that separate them from their kids.
These are a far cry from out-of-control gangs, kill-crazy video games, and other scapegoats lurking "out there" in the mythical boiler-room of American culture. In one of the film's most striking scenes, goth rocker and veteran scapegoat Marilyn Manson argues that fear is a major fuel for modern capitalism, as people frantically consume to allay the anxiety fostered by media rumor-panics and other scare-mongering propaganda.
"Bowling for Columbine" would be more powerful if such insightful moments were delivered with fewer digressions, and if some of its arguments didn't seem so sketchy. American history is far too recent and idiosyncratic to be compared with that of England or Germany, for instance, let alone reduced to the oversimplifications of a "South Park"-style history lesson Moore injects into the movie. He doesn't ask why American news is driven so constantly by urban violence, or why shows like "Cops" draw such enormous audiences.
"Bowling for Columbine" also contains too much of Moore himself, morphing from indefatigable populist to grandstanding scenery-chewer as he commiserates with sobbing schoolteachers, waves around pictures of murdered children, and congratulates himself for getting Kmart to stop selling bullets. He pushes the envelope in the final sequence, where he tracks down National Rifle Association honcho Charlton Heston in his Beverly Hills home and badgers the bewildered star until he throws up his hands and totters out of the room.
It's a quintessential Moore moment: The mighty Moses of the NRA turns out to be a courteous old fool who can hardly comprehend the accusations thrown at him, much less answer them. But it's also a reminder that Moore didn't become a culture hero -- or a movie star -- by being Mr. Nice Guy, and that this friend of the common man can still pack a nasty punch when the time is right and the camera is pointed his way.