Bowling for Columbine
Moore Takes Aim at a Culture of Fear
By Patrick Reed


Filmmaker Michael Moore has become a veritable social irritant over the past dozen years. The former alternative-press journalist and editor staked out a left-wing, populist perspective with Roger & Me in 1989, and followed up throughout the 90s with forays into television (TV Nation), ensuing films (The Big One) and most successfully, books (Downsize This! and Stupid White Men, the latter of which became a post-9/11 cause célèbre due to librarians' protests against the publisher's attempts at censorship). He can also often be seen on the talk-show circuit, never failing to mention stuff like the Bush family's friendship with Saudi royalty and the Bin Ladens; you know, just the sort of information that rarely if ever gets mentioned in the media when discussing the historical context of current events.

If Michael Moore had his liberal druthers, his beloved Southeast Michigan would once again become a world leader in vehicle production-of the hydrogen-powered variety-the Enrons of the world would be overthrown by a business model grounded in ethics, and our government would be re-shaped along the lines of LBJ's Great Society mixed with Ralph Nader. The resulting Utopia would surely put him out of work, but he probably wouldn't mind. Now in '02, there's one Moore goal to add to the agenda, a new one: Americans should stop shooting each other so damn much.

Bowling for Columbine is Moore's most provocative work since Roger & Me. That movie, which passionately protested the slow death of Moore's hometown of Flint due to the global expansion of General Motors, pointed out how the latent economic policies of Reagan's America were swallowing jobs and corroding spirits across the heartland. Despite the initial acclaim, criticisms of Moore's technique have followed him ever since Roger, and they have surfaced once again, coming from both the left and right. While it's true that he doesn't always assemble all of his observations into a coherent argument, and is also susceptible to a bit of grandstanding at others' expense, what is beyond dispute is that Michael Moore gives a damn about where this country is heading, and he wants to push whatever issue he's focusing on out into public debate. Bowling for Columbine does the trick.

The film's title arises from the fact that before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, they attended their early-morning bowling class for the last time. Moore uses the Columbine massacre as a springboard into a wide-ranging exposé of America's particular obsession with guns. If there's a running question throughout Bowling, it is this: why do so many other affluent democracies such as Germany, the U.K. and Canada have yearly gun-murder rates that total in the double digits, and the U.S. in the thousands? As Moore painstakingly illustrates, foreigners consume the same culture-the same video games, movies, etc.-as us, and possess their fair share of firearms, Canada especially. So, what gives? Moore shambles across the nation, from South Central Los Angeles to Littleton, Colorado, on to Flint, into Canada and back in a search for answers, but what becomes manifest in Bowling, more than any final understanding, is a sense of social despair.

People personally affected by violence break down on camera, from a security expert in Littleton to a principal in Flint who experienced the horror of a 6-year-old shooting and killing a classmate. The former pal of Timothy McVeigh places a loaded gun to his wild-eyed noggin and vows never to surrender his arsenal to federal government invaders. Media careerists attempt to rationalize their over-coverage of violent behavior and stammer as they contradict themselves. And the head of the National Rifle Association (yep, Moses himself) arrives at a disturbingly illuminating conclusion about the root cause of America's savage history, and then retreats into his lush Beverly Hills residence when asked to elaborate (Charlton Heston may have symptoms of dementia, but here he seems cognizant, and somewhat embarrassed, about the rationale behind his "cold dead hands" advocacy of the Second Amendment).

There's plenty of humor as well in Bowling, and Moore's emphasis on the racial aspect of America's fear of gun violence is forcefully argued. Crucially, the enveloping influence of government misconduct and corporate greed on American's daily lives is never forgotten-and the film's most inspiring sequence occurs when Moore and two bullet-riddled teenage victims from Columbine travel to K-Mart headquarters and implore the execs to stop carrying handgun ammunition, a common Moore "shame on you" strategy that actually works for a change. Elsewhere, however, things appear bleak, for everywhere Moore turns-the militia culture, the insipid evening news, the widening socioeconomic divide-he finds culpability for a nation scared shitless. You won't agree with every point Michael Moore makes; you might think that he even crosses the line once or twice. But if you care even a bit about the multitude of problems facing our trigger-happy city on a hill, the points raised in Bowling on Columbine must be grappled with.