There are a few great debates in this country that may never be settled. Abortion is one. First Amendment exceptions is another. The argument over the right to bear arms, though, is one that can’t even have that “may” in there. No kind of evidence, imaginable or unimaginable, is going to come out of nowhere and prove that guns should be permitted, controlled or banned. It’s just always going to be a balance of beliefs and opinion. That doesn’t mean the topic shouldn’t continue to be debated for eternity, and I certainly welcome any documentary that wants to take either side strongly. Unfortunately, there’s this misconception lately that non-fiction films have to be “objective” and include all points of view. It’s a misconception that makes Barbara Kopple’s latest, “Gun Fight,” a major disappointment.
The film, which premiered this week on HBO, has a fairly clear allegiance to the gun control position based on who it follows most predominantly: Virginia Tech victim turned lobbyist Colin Goddard (who also is the focus of Kevin Breslin’s recent Sundance entry, “Living for 32”) and a doctor who’s seen enough bullet wounds in the ER that he’s become an advocate on the issue. These subjects are not characters so much as props on a cluttered stage without a play or purpose. “Gun Fight” simply catches viewers up on issues concerning the Second Amendment, especially since the VT massacre four years ago but also referencing Columbine a lot and, tacked on at the end, an acknowledgment of January’s shooting in Tucson.
It’s plenty fair that for a balanced report Kopple interviews a number of pro-gun subjects, including another VT student who wishes he’d been allowed to have his firearm on campus that fateful day. At first the film does a decent job with back and forth on the question of whether Seung-Hui Cho was able to kill so many people because of lax gun laws or because of strict gun laws (was it worse that he could buy a gun in his mental state or that potential defensive action couldn’t occur because nobody can bring their gun to school?). A lot of “rather have it and not need it…” insurance-comparison points, including one likening guns to fire extinguishers. But that discussion is left behind after a somewhat silly “20/20” clip meant to demonstratively answer the question definitively.
Nothing is so certain with this debate, though, and the absence of at least any clear argument on the part of the film is frustrating. Michael Moore’s obviously slanted “Bowling for Columbine” was still so much smarter for understanding that the gun debate is not the real issue here, and while that doc has its faults it is very commendable for seeking other questions and in turn other possible answers. One section of “Gun Fight,” a montage of angry and stupid people who intentionally or accidentally (or “accidentally”) shot bosses and wives out of rage and/or idiocy show a bigger problem with humanity than the desire to bear arms, but the film doesn’t really go there the way Moore’s did. How does Kopple, with her rare prestige of twice winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature (compared to Moore’s one, I guess), not realize her new film is so flat and mundane?
More than her Academy Award winners (the equally brilliant union-centered docs “Harlan County, USA” and “American Dream”), I thought during “Gun Fight” of her 2006 film, “Shut Up & Sing.” What could have been a bland profile on the Dixie Chicks following a minor controversy is actually an excellent, jam-packed look at celebrity and damage control, the Bush Administration, womanhood, motherhood and of course some address of the right to free speech (including criticisms of the President). Why couldn’t “Gun Fight” have been so rich? I kind of wish Kopple had waited a bit longer and turned the project into a sort of sequel/companion to “Shut Up” concentrated on Sarah Palin’s similar yet worse situation following the attempt on Gabrielle Giffords, allegedly an effect of the infamous cross-hairs map.
Can we learn anything from “Gun Fight”? Maybe if we have little knowledge of the debate over the last 50 years, but I believe Kopple is both better than a basic history lesson and doesn’t really mean to present such a straightforward report either. Leave that to journalists, which I prefer documentarians for the most part not to be. A lot of news today is one-sided while non-fiction films are striving to fill that missing balance of truth, but many filmmakers, such as Kopple, are better than the task. Her best work qualifies as journalism to an extent but it’s greater for its storytelling and memorable characters. Maybe she just couldn’t find anyone in the gun debate interesting enough for complete concentration yet was committed to the project in spite of its staleness. Hopefully she has better luck on whatever she documents next.
“Gun Fight” will screen at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival tonight and continues to air on HBO and is available On Demand through May 8.