Produced, written and directed by Michael Moore
Featuring interviews with Marilyn Manson, Matt Stone,
John Nichols, Charlton Heston
Rated R, 119 minutes
One of the most ordinary movements someone can make, and
normally one of the least expressive - the act of turning
one's back to the camera - provides two high points in Michael
Moore's scary-funny, ultimately enraging documentary Bowling
for Columbine. The film is Moore's exploration of the
American fascination with/addiction to guns, violence and
especially the fear that feeds these addictions.
The back-turning moments come fairly late in the film. Moore
is talking to the principal of an elementary school in his
home town of Flint, Mich., where a 6-year-old boy had brought
a gun to school and shot a 5-year-old girl. The principal
- a quiet, serious but not humorless black woman - is trying
to maintain her composure, but it's too much for her to talk
about without a wave of emotion. She turns her back to the
camera and Moore pats her shoulder and says "It's O.K.,
it's O.K." It sounds so simple but it makes you realize
how cold and artificial other interviews, in documentaries
and TV news shows, really are. Moore actually seems to be
listening to people, to be affected by what he's hearing.
The other back-turning moment is chilling. As in Moore's
previous documentary Roger & Me, which was about
his ultimately futile attempt to get General Motors chairman
Roger Smith on camera as a means to take some notice of the
economic devastation that had been inflicted on Flint, he's
after big game in Columbine: Moses himself, National
Rifle Association president Charlton Heston.
The NRA (of which Moore is a lifelong member, by the way)
sponsored rallies in Denver, a few miles from the site of
the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999, as well
as near Flint following the elementary school shooting mentioned
above. Heston spoke at both meetings, and Moore uses footage
of Ben-Hur intoning the five words sacred to gun owners: "From
my cold, dead hands" (as in, that's where you'll pry
my gun away from me).
Heston, more media-savvy and possibly even more arrogant
than GM's Smith, does agree to an on-camera interview with
Moore, and he says about what you'd expect him to. Again,
Moore is less interested in gotcha! moments than in simply
asking basic, straightforward (and for that reason explosive)
questions: Why do Americans have so many guns? Why do we use
them to shoot each other with so often? Is there something
peculiarly "American" about our propensity to violence?
The chilling back-turn comes when Heston stops the interview
and walks away from Moore's camera, with a determined, stiff
shuffle, as Moore asks him to look at a photo of the 5-year-old
girl who had been shot. He looks old (Heston recently acknowledged
that he has Alzheimer's Disease) and stubborn.
The film as a whole is enraging in both good and bad ways.
In the good ways, Moore raises the questions that nobody else
is asking: Is the U.S. as a country more violent than other
countries? More violent than, say, Germany (began two wars
in the last 100 years, exterminated 12 million people in the
second one)? Russia/U.S.S.R. (sent millions to the gulag or
killed them outright)? The British (ran a worldwide empire
at the point of a gun for centuries)? Or to take a more current
Or is it just the number of guns in the U.S.? It seems not:
Moore spends a lot of the film talking to people in Canada,
which has nearly as many guns per capita as the U.S. but far,
far less gun violence - and more important, far less hate-
But it's also enraging in bad ways. He seems to want to connect
the violent acts of the U.S. government with the violence
of individuals and groups like the Michigan Militia. Never
mind that one reason these groups are scary is because they
are so libertarian that they reject almost any kind of government.
Does a violent government mean the people are violent in response,
or do people get the government they need? Or the government
In addition, Moore seems to reject the easy castigation of
entertainment as a causal factor in the kind of violence that
erupted at Columbine. His interview with singer Marilyn Manson,
who was demonized by every self-important politician and pundit
after it was revealed the Columbine killers listened to his
music, is fascinating and thoughtful. Manson may wear funny
makeup but he sounds like a reasonable guy who just wants
to make music.
Yet Moore plays blame-the-media himself, by noting the "if
it bleeds, it leads" mentality of local news, as well
as the damaging stereotypes and peculiar blindnesses it traffics
in (demonizing black men as dangerous and aggressive, ignoring
underlying issues of institutionalized poverty and neglect
that breed the conditions for violence).
It's probably too much to expect Moore - who is, after all,
playing an extremely useful role as "innocent" questioner
and provocateur - to have coherent answers to what's obviously
a multi-tentacled set of issues. I personally left the theater
after Bowling feeling angry, sad, confused and frightened
- and convinced that we'd better not turn our backs on Michael
Moore's simple questions for much longer.