Bowling for Columbine

Review by Adam Blair

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 example, Iraq?

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- and fear-mongering.

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 they deserve?

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.

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