No one would ever mistake Moore for anything but a mudslinging yellow journalist, but sometimes extreme issues require extreme measures.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Every year, firearms kill 381 people in Germany, 255 in France, 165 in Canada, 68 in the United Kingdom, 65 in Australia, 39 in Japan, and in the United States, 11,127." --Michael Moore

The biggest question about "Bowling for Columbine" isn't which side of the gun-control issue you support, but whether or not this 2002 multiple-award winner for Best Documentary is really a documentary at all. In terms of filmmaking, my "Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary" defines a documentary as "based on or re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements." I suppose the key words here are "purports to be factually accurate," which is what writer-producer-director Michael Moore, the Cannes Film Festival, the Writers Guild of America, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would undoubtedly claim he was doing in his picture. But others, especially people in the National Rifle Association, would probably argue that Moore is so biased and stacks his case so one-sidedly against gun use in America that his film hardly represents a fair case or an objective documentary.

All the same, can there ever be anything like a truly objective documentary? All documentarians, like all historians who have ever penned an article, pick and choose their available facts, intentionally or unintentionally, to serve whatever purpose they have in mind. Does every school kid in America get to read the full account of Hitler's or Japan's side of the Second World War? There can be no doubt that Michael Moore is an antigun advocate from the very outset of his film, so get over it. His job is to ask what there is about Americans that make us an inherently violent people living in a hostile environment, to show that guns contribute to the violence, and to suggest that fear and violence contribute to the vicious circle of further gun ownership. Once you know what he's up to, you can argue with him all you want. Just make no mistake: He's not presenting both sides, not even in his interview with NRA President and spokesman Charlton Heston.

Understand, too, that I am personally in agreement with Moore's cause. I believe handguns and automatic weapons should be regulated and in the hands of the police and military only. Yet even I found myself feeling a little sorry for some of Moore's interviewees.

His movie works more like a satire than a documentary. He asks the right, loaded questions and then stands back and allows his subjects to hang themselves with their answers. He has had the advantage, after all, of formulating his questions well in advance, while his subjects must respond on the spur of the moment, sometimes embarrassingly so. A Michigan "Militiaman," for instance, says, "It's an American responsibility to be armed. If you're not armed, you're not responsible." Directly after that, Moore tells us that the town of Virgin, Utah, passed a law requiring all residents to own a gun.

The movie opens with a passing reference to the morning of April 20, 1999, the date of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. He will later make the event the focal point of his campaign against violence and guns. He follows this opening scene with an amusing segment showing him doing business with a Michigan bank that offers a free gun with every new account. "I want the account where I can get the free gun," he says to the teller. After opening the account, he is given his choice of weapons because the bank is also a licensed firearms dealer. "Here's my first question," he continues with the teller. "Don't you think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?"

Then Moore patches in a funny and perceptive clip from entertainer Chris Rock who says, "We don't need gun control; we need bullet control." Every bullet, Rock explains, should cost $5,000. "People would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost $5,000. Man, I would blow your head off, if I could afford it!"

Moore's interviews continue: Friends of bomber Timothy McVey, friends of the Columbine students who committed the horrendous killings, teachers at Columbine and other schools where murders by students have occurred, and a visit to a plant just outside Littleton, Lockheed-Martin, "the world's largest weapons maker." Moore also mentions that Rocky Flats, the country's largest plutonium weapons-making factory is located near Littleton, as is NORAD, which oversees our nuclear missiles program. He's trying to show, of course, the climate of violence that exists around the outwardly placid Colorado suburb and to use the town as a metaphor for the kind of suppressed violence that exists everywhere in America. He makes a case for this being a fully armed country, citing our government's support for wars, coups, assassinations, and rebellions all over the world. And this was before our supposedly preemptive war against Iraq, which began days before "Bowling for Columbine" opened, no doubt increasing the movie's popularity among antiwar supporters. Anyway, you accept Moore's arguments or not.

Frankly, I found the filmmaker more than a little pushy and not nearly so penetrating as he might have been in pursuing his case. For example, Moore quotes numerous famous people on the causes for the Columbine disaster, but the comments are all excerpted out of context in brief fragments: "Angry, heavy-metal subculture," "Where were the parents?," "violent movies," "South Park," "video games," "television," "entertainment," "Satan," "cartoons," "society," "toy guns," "drugs," "shock rock," "Marilyn Manson," "the President," "Marilyn Manson," "Marilyn Manson." So he interviews Marilyn Manson, whose violent rock lyrics are said by some to have had a causal effect on the disturbed youths. Moore points out that on the day of the Columbine shootings, America dropped more bombs on Kosovo than during any other time in the Bosnian conflict. Which, he asks Manson, have a more seriously detrimental effect on our way of thinking, the song lyrics or the bombs? Manson, not surprisingly, agrees with the bomb theory.

In addition to my feeling that Moore piles on too much, he never seems to follow up on things that might actually matter. He appears far more interested in making a popular, marketable film than in closely analyzing the data. Remember those I figures I quoted on the high number of deaths by guns in America? Why didn't he question the number further? For what year was the number given? How many of the deaths could be attributed to crimes? How many to suicides? To accidents? How many deaths involved police, military, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, teens, children, adults, men, women? What does the number really mean? Needless to day, his reason for not delving into these questions is probably pretty simple: It didn't serve his agenda. Well, it's his movie.

Moore also gets easily sidetracked by what he considers important but probably peripheral issues; the killer-bee scare, for instance, or false threats of black violence that never materialize. He starts to explore fuzzy areas involving "fear," but he never defines fear in any concrete terms, only suggesting that Americans are more fearful than other folks. Canadians, he argues, leave their doors unlocked. Americans don't. Therefore, Americans shoot each other more? Then he goes on to practically accuse the media of fostering an atmosphere of violence and fear in the country, but, again, he offers only anecdotal proof. Again, oh, well.

At last we come to the climax of the film and Moore's interview with actor Charlton Heston. Possibly to the actor's regret, Heston agrees to be interviewed, allowing Moore into his home for an on-camera chat. But when it becomes clear that Moore only wants to harass the NRA spokesman, Heston simply gets up and leaves. I have no sympathy for Heston or his cause, but I don't blame the man for walking out, especially when a moment later we see Moore planting a picture of a murder victim on Heston's estate.

I wonder in the end if Moore and his movie aren't preaching to the choir. "Bowling for Columbine" is propaganda, pure and simple, but can it persuade gun lovers to give up their treasured weapons or convince legislators who receive large campaign donations from gun lobbies to change the nation's gun laws? I couldn't say. The film seems more designed to entertain gun-control advocates like me by reminding us of what we already know. Still, the movie is a powerful reminder of a lot of the things wrong with America, and it can only do some small good in what is admittedly a long and uphill fight.

As one would expect of a documentary shot in a number of different locations, the video quality wanders all over the map. Sometimes it's clear, well detailed, and well focused, and other times it's soft and slightly blurred. Most of the time, however, it is more than adequate for the job it's doing, which is not to stimulate our eyes but our minds. The image is presented in an approximately 1.74:1 anamorphic ratio, with little more than the filmmaker and his subjects on screen at any given time.

Like the video, the audio is nothing special. Most of the time the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sounds like ordinary monaural, which it probably is. At other times, we see film clips of cartoons or movies that open up the rear channels, if ever so slightly. Again, the movie was never meant to show off one's new home-theater sound system, only to convey dialogue clearly and accurately, which it does with ease.

The movie and its bonus features are spread out over two sides of a single disc. On side one we get the movie itself and its DD 5.1 soundtrack, plus an optional, three-minute introduction to the film by director Michael Moore and an audio commentary with eight receptionists, production assistants, and interns who worked on the project. They tend to chatter and giggle a little more than we're used to in a commentary, but it's refreshing, too. Moore says he didn't want to do the commentary himself because he had already had his say in the film. Side one concludes with thirty-two scene selections, English as the only spoken language, English and Spanish subtitles, and a widescreen theatrical trailer.

Side two contains a whole slew of additional bonus items. The first is a fifteen-minute talk by Moore on his Oscar win and the justifications for his antiwar acceptance speech. Next is a twenty-five minute film of Moore's "Return to Denver/Littleton" to deliver an address to the students of the University of Denver on February 26, 2003. Next is a twenty-one minute interview with Moore by former Press Secretary Joe Lockhart at HBO's "U.S. Comedy Arts Festival." Fourth is a segment from Moore's cable TV show, "The Awful Truth II: Corporate Cops," wherein he goes after a pesticide company. Fifth is a twenty-four minute "Charlie Rose Show" with Moore being interviewed. After that is a sixteen-minute Cannes Film Festival scrapbook chronicling his award win there. Finally, there is Marilyn Manson's "Fight Song" music video; a photo gallery; and two DVD-ROM features, Michael Moore's "Action Guide" and a Teacher's Guide for using the film in schools. Side two is definitely for those folks who want more of Moore.

Parting Thoughts:
No matter which side of the gun-control fence you sit on and no matter whether you accept the movie as a genuine "documentary," it's hard not to find Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" a fascinating and thought-provoking study of American violence. No one would ever mistake Moore for anything but a mudslinging yellow journalist, but sometimes extreme issues require extreme measures, and Moore is up to the job. An Oscar winner? That's not for me to judge. But the movie is an enlightening diversion and worth far more of one's time than most of the mindless drivel that comes out of the entertainment industry these days.


Film Value