Bowling for Columbine (2002)

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*. Michael Moore is a character I feel a lot of ambivalence toward. In general I agree with his political broadsides, and I respect the courage he has shown in delivering them. The success of films like Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 was by no means a sure thing. This is a guy who isn’t afraid to take on the big boys.
*. That said, I also find him to be a transparently manipulative filmmaker whose work is more propaganda than reportage. There’s a bit of this in every documentary, to be sure, but Moore takes it too far, going beyond a point where he’s convincing. Of this movie’s many messages there were few that I found persuasive.
*. Some of the spin didn’t bother me. In the opening scene, for example, time is compressed so that it seems as though Moore is just walking into a bank and walking out with a rifle. But it’s made clear that he’s coming back at a later date to get his prize and I didn’t feel misled.
*. Far more troubling was his use of Canada throughout the film. In the first place, the fact of the matter is that guns (especially the most dangerous guns, like handguns and automatic and semi-automatic weapons) are far less common in Canada than in the U.S. The regulations for getting such weapons are also much tougher. But Moore insists that Canada is as much a gun culture as the U.S. because it fits with the argument he is making.
*. Also pretty ridiculous is the notion that Canadians don’t sleep with their doors locked. Most do. And what does it prove to go up to houses and try the doors? During the day I think a lot of people do leave their doors unlocked, at least while they’re at home. I think they probably do in the U.S. as well.
*. In addition to being misleading, the movie is also a mess. The pieces don’t all fit together, and many of them don’t make any kind of a point. Interviews with Marilyn Manson and Matt Stone tell us almost nothing at all and I don’t know why they were included but for the minor celebrity bump (their connections to Columbine are flimsy at best).
*. Among the other bits and pieces I found the “History of America” cartoon to be uninformative and unfunny, and the whole assault on K-Mart hard to figure out. I’m all for gun control, but K-Mart didn’t even sell the Columbine guns, just the bullets. This is taking corporate responsbility pretty far.
*. Probably the oddest bit of messiness, however, is the whole bowling angle. In fact, the Columbine killers did not go bowling the morning of the fatal day. And even if they had, what is Moore’s point? I don’t see any.
*. Moore received a lot of criticism for his “ambush” interview with Charlton Heston. Here again I feel conflicted. Yes, Heston was an old man, but it’s not apparent that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s in the footage we see. He is lucid and coherent.
*. My problem with the Heston interview is that it is, again, irrelevant. Heston was only a celebrity mouthpiece for the NRA, and what he says is mostly innocuous. He slips once with the line about blaming gun violence in America on the country’s “mixed ethnicity,” but he doesn’t repeat this charge and it is only part of a larger diagnosis anyway.
*. Where I think the movie does score points is first of all in the bold linkage between political and individual violence. I don’t think this is a point that is made as clearly as it perhaps could have been, but suggesting such a connection at all was a daring move.
*. Another point, also very general and not fleshed out but still vital, is the equation of violence with fear. The Americans we see aren’t so much angry as scared. Which makes them even scarier.
*. The final theme, and the one that I think works best, is the portrayal of gun violence as the product of economically depressed environments. As one of the angry young residents of Oscoda puts it, “this town gets you down.” And while Flint is, of course, a total dead end, the other places we visit seem little better. America gets you down. It’s clear that even Matt Stone, a fortunate son, still harbours a massive hate against Littleton. Lack of opportunity feeds resentment and paranoia. The rest is headlines.

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