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Bowling for Columbine

MGM Home Video

Written and directed by Michael Moore

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

"For god's sake, don't vote for this film. Don't put me on the stage on the Oscar show on live TV. I think that's a big mistake. I want to take an ad out in Variety and plead with Academy voters: do not vote for this film; it is a critical mistake to put me live on this stage. So, now, I've issued the warning."

— Michael Moore at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival,
February 27, 2003

But deep down in places they didn't talk about at their pre-Oscar parties, Hollywood wanted Moore on that stage, they needed him on that stage. That said, what happened under the lights of the Kodak Theater in March 2003 in front of millions of television viewers when Michael Moore was handed his Best Documentary statuette for Bowling for Columbine is still being disputed. Was Moore booed outright by an audience angry at the filmmaker's temerity to inject his fiercely held beliefs into an otherwise apolitical evening of respectfully tacit allusions to the week-old war in Iraq, or is Moore's assertion true, and was the crowd really cheering him at first, only to be shouted down by an outraged contingent hiding out in the balcony?

The answer, of course, is that we'll never know, just as we'll never really know what final, fatal fit of pique was responsible for setting off the hair-trigger of anger and resentment that sent Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into Columbine High School to seek their bloody vengeance, leaving 12 students (14, if one counts Harris and Klebold, who took their own lives) and one teacher dead. But that shouldn't stop us from investigating what outside influences — be they social, political or cultural — contributed to filing down the mainspring on their collective rage. The title of Michael Moore's rancorous inquiry is derived from the knowledge that, before storming the school, Harris and Klebold went bowling, which, again, suggests the ultimate futility in nailing down a single cause. But Moore's got some ideas, and, as has always been the case with the humorist/essayist/documentarian (that's placed last for a very good reason), he explores these notions in a highly entertaining, discursive, and inflammatory style that often dials up the level of outrage at the expense of the truth.

But isn't truth the first responsibility of any documentarian? We'll deal with this one caveat at a time.

*          *          *

Bowling for Columbine begins amusingly enough with Moore applying his usual "ambush and fluster" technique of interviewing, doubtlessly modeled after the exposé approach made famous by Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes," as he applies for a basic CD account at a small Michigan bank that promises a free rifle upon approval of one's application. Moore smartly plays up the most idiotic aspect of the giveaway — "Do you think it's a little dangerous to be handing out guns in a bank?" — and, indeed, this lunkheaded concept could very well be the germ of a spec screenplay (especially with the additional revelation that there are 500 guns stored away in the vault); a crafty and experienced criminal could truly make hay with this set-up. This segues into another "idiots and guns" episode, where we watch videotape footage of a man who was actually shot by his dog after having strapped a rifle to his dog's back while trying to photographe the mutt in a cute hunting pose. (As with many firearm mishaps in this country, one is compelled to ask: Why in the hell was the gun loaded in the first place?) In both of these instances, Moore is at his satirical best, sending up how some of our citizenry's fascination with guns comes at the expense of basic common sense. That his subjects seem incapable of recognizing the depths of their own stupidity both amplifies and darkens the gag.

After those stinging jabs, Moore finally begins to work the heavy bag, pounding away at the sophistries of the two most disturbing malcontents that will be featured in the film: The Michigan Militia and James Nichols. The former are a bunch of lower- to middle-class white guys who hang out on weekends to ostensibly perform their constitutional duty to maintain armed vigil against the potential intrusions of a government run amok, while the latter is the crazy-eyed brother of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. Though James was cleared of any tangible connections to that act of domestic terrorism, he still has a zealous penchant for anti-government vituperation, and it's more than a little disconcerting to watch him get off on the empowering idea that the U.S. government is legitimately afraid of him. It's disturbing stuff that veers into profoundly frightening territory when Moore calls Nichols on his claim that he keeps a loaded .44 caliber pistol under his pillow. As they go into the bedroom without the camera, we're informed that Nichols retrieves the gun, pulls back its hammer and points it at his head, while a panicked Moore repeatedly asks him to stop.

This is merely prelude, though, to Moore's primary question: What went so goddamn wrong in Littleton, Colo., that a couple of kids had to pick off their perceived persecutors? He seizes on two explanations, the first of which is that the town is helplessly corrupted by a foundation of violence because its number-one private employer is Lockheed Martin, the world's largest maker of weapons. Moore is obviously knocked out by this revelation — so much so that he gaspingly restates his astonishment at the fact numerous times on the disc's supplements — and the sight of what the filmmaker claims could be weapons of mass destruction being transported in the dead of night through suburban neighborhoods does retain a quiet power, but it never flowers into anything more than an unsettling coincidence. After all, Lockheed Martin is probably the chief private employer in many other cities in this country, places where the company goes about fulfilling its lucrative defense contracts by building fighter jets and bombers. If that were being done in Littleton, Moore might've had somewhere to go. As it is, there's nothing but insinuation; not surprisingly, he quickly abandons the point and moves onto his next premise.

Indeed, he finds better traction with the second part of his thesis, that this violence is the outgrowth of a culture of fear exacerbated by a ratings-hungry news media and the Bush administration, which believes that their grasp on the White House can be maintained by positioning themselves as strong on defense. But defense against what? Hard to say, really, but if the television's to be trusted, the dangers are myriad: e.g., shirtless black men, Africanized Killer Bees, sharks, escalators and, post 9/11, a "general threat" of terrorism. Aided by a broad, but undeniably uproarious, cartoon that depicts how Americans have been 'fraidy cats since they set foot off the Mayflower, Moore rightly hits on right-wing politicians' inexcusable reliance on the racial trump card, which has, in years past, been played successfully in Presidential elections (see "Horton, Willie"). But he also castigates that old Hollywood stalwart, the Limousine Liberal; in this case, an ex-producer of the Fox mainstay, "COPS," who anemically admits that he "doesn't know how" to do a story on the far more pernicious exigency of white collar crime (the producer lets the rest of us finish his "doesn't know how" line with its inevitable corollary, "and make money").

What Moore can't do, however, is tie this phenomenon back into the Columbine issue. His fall-back, then, is to address the alarming disparity between gun deaths in the United States and individual countries in the rest of the world as an indicator that we're just simply a more violent people; a flawed hypothesis on its face once one realizes Moore has no plans to address the overwhelmingly obvious fact that these countries have much smaller populations. Does Moore think that little of his audience's intelligence, or is he simply being lazy? (Considering that he's not averse to pressing Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" into service as an ironic counterpoint to the United States' myriad and indefensible foreign policy blunders earlier in the film seems to suggest that the latter is true.) Regardless of his motive, this poorly considered avenue balloons into a facile socio-political study of Canada that fails to connect the most stunning contrast between Americans and their neighbor to the north, and that is a lack of reactionary-fueled anger toward their government.

Forget Moore's typical shell game with the facts, and his tendency to tamper with the chronology of events (there was a politically partisan website widely promoted via email soon after the film was released that attempted to debunk as much of its tenuous assertions as possible, but it ended up trafficking in the same kinds of distortions for which it held Moore in contempt, while displaying a layman's ignorance of the documentary filmmaking process in which verisimilitude is often truth enough); the attentive viewer can navigate his tinkering provided they're equipped with a decent bullshit detector (as anyone who watches television news in this country should be). What's stunning, however, is that a left-wing populist like Moore would flat-out miss the opportunity to connect the craving for power evinced by the Michigan Militia and Terry Nichols with the yearning for retribution, attention, and, in one brief blaze of glory, power that Klebold and Harris cited ceaselessly in their planning. But while their older, pot-bellied cousins-in-catastrophe are merely (frighteningly) pathetic, the palpably tragic thing about Klebold and Harris was that they were so close to graduation. In a month, they would've been free of their tormentors and off on their own in the real world. Soon enough, as hit upon in the conversation between Moore and South Park co-creator Matt Stone earlier in the film, they'd realize how ridiculously petty their complaints were. However, as happens more often than not with high school students, and through no fault of their own, that kind of enlightened perspective eluded them. For them, endgame was in the halls of Columbine High School, and, if we live in a culture of fear, what could be more satisfying and powerful than to make your perceived enemies live in fear of you?

But Moore's after bigger game, namely former NRA President Charlton Heston, whom he chases down for an interview at the actor's home in Beverly Hills. Moore's intent here seems hazy; what does he really want from the recently diagnosed Alzheimer's patient? There's unquestionably a legitimate gripe with the organization's tendency to spin tragedies like Columbine and the grade school shooting in Flint, Mich., against the drive for mandatory gun registration in this country, but the whole episode seems like a poorly thought-out attack on a sick man. Whether or not Heston would've come off as a bumbling, prevaricating ass without the fog of Alzheimer's clouding his thoughts, we'll never know. It could also be argued that he's in the early stages of the disease, and was therefore of sound enough mind and body to debate Moore, but that is also irrelevant. What matters is that we're watching the filmmaker fire question after loaded question at a known suffer of a horribly debilitating illness, and it turns the audience against him. Even more infuriating, Moore segues to this regrettable penultimate segment after depicting his involvement in something extremely positive: the successful lobbying of K-Mart, along with two crippled Columbine survivors, to remove assault rifle ammunition from their shelves. Though this episode does begin with the creepy feeling that Moore is exploiting their misery, watching these two young adults throw themselves into the effort is downright inspiring. Their victory, while small, represents the potentially positive outcome of Moore's populist, "Do Something" rhetoric. Even more important, it's a sterling example of how non-violent activism can instill in the individual a more galvanizing sense of power than that being sought by the film's many misdirected gun-nuts, while striking fear in this country's true corporate power elite. Sadly, the tacking on of the Heston episode only lends more credence to the charges that Moore is little more than a shamelessly self-promoting blowhard.

But for all of Michael Moore's failings as a documentarian, Bowling for Columbine is mostly an entertaining American travelogue with an admittedly biased tour guide. Keeping that in mind, it's impossible to not enjoy his slamming of congressmen from both sides of the ideological aisles for their mindless piling on of Marilyn Manson, who, when given a chance to defend himself, winds up being more measured and lucid than his detractors. There's also the security marketing video aimed at capitalizing on post-Columbine fears in which a normal looking lad in loose fitting jeans and sweatshirt ends up emptying a full arsenal of firearms from his clothing like clowns spilling out of a car, building to a coup de grace that, frankly, makes the bit an exemplary model of gag construction worthy of Harpo Marx. Despite Moore's loftier intentions, his film is best viewed as the work of a clever prankster, especially since it seems like he's becoming increasingly sidetracked by his own political aspirations. His next film, Fahrenheit 9-11, is to be an expose on the dovetailing business practices of the Bush and bin Laden families, and is planned for release in 2004 as a jeremiad meant to influence the presidential election. A public cringes in anticipation.

*          *          *

MGM Home Entertainment presents Bowling for Columbine in a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with decent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Objectively, this double-sided "Special Edition" disc offers up an impressive assemblage of reasonably substantive extras that puts many other similarly billed releases to shame. But for a film that prides itself on being able to spark heated post-film discussion, the supplementary material here is, with very few exceptions, doggedly one-sided. Side One of the disc houses a sober "Personal Introduction" from Michael Moore, in which he unsurprisingly admits to finding the movie as he shot it, and, regrettably, a feature length commentary by a collection of interns and production assistants that must be the worst idea since the in-character The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension debacle. If this is Moore's swipe at the self-important nature of these commentary tracks, then it's a joke best appreciated at the conceptual level. By all means, don't listen to the damn thing.

Side Two is where the gravy can be found, beginning with Moore's defense of his Oscar speech (15 min.), which he mounts sans footage of the actual event (it was withheld by the Academy). There's also a "Return to Littleton" featurette (25 min.) taped six months after the release of Bowling for Columbine, which includes snippets of what must've been a rather rambling speech given by Moore that offers further evidence that this is a man who does not know how to choose his battles. It ends with footage of an autograph signing that serves the singular purpose of making Moore look like a guy who cares. (Hey, I'm sure he does, but what possible edification is there in watching him indulge in Clintonian "pain feeling" with Columbine survivors? It's akin to the nonsense of showing him comforting the Buell Elementary principal.) Want self-congratulation? You've got it in the "Film Festival Scrapbook" (16 min.), where we get to see Moore receiving adulation from Cannes to Toronto to London. A little less annoying is Moore's conversation with former White House Press Secretary, Joe Lockhart, at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (21 min.) where the filmmaker delineates his strategy for saving the Democratic party, candidly discusses his role in the corporate machinery as a veritable multi-medium cash cow, and makes a very good point about the numbing apathy induced by television that essentially undercuts his stringent and outrageous message, thus suppressing the public's desire to effect change. Another pleasant surprise on the disc is the inclusion of an excerpt from Moore's television series "The Awful Truth," where his corporate-crime-fighting team, replete with Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken, go after a lab dabbling in some cruel and unusual human testing. Most satisfyingly, there's the always welcome inclusion of an interview from "The Charlie Rose Show" (24 min.), which is the closest we see to someone challenging Moore with something approaching an opposing viewpoint. It's a solid segment that goes a long way toward breaking down Moore's carefully constructed self-promotional fañade.

Rounding out the disc are two DVD-ROM extras — a "teacher's guide" and "Michael Moore's Action Guide — that purport to sell Bowling for Columbine as an educational supplement. This is an awful idea. At best, Moore's film could be used in Critical Thinking courses as an example of identifying bias and manipulation in media. That he'd like his work to be used as a text is, depending on one's ideological orientation, either disturbing or just another example of his trademark hubris. There's also a music video for Marily Manson's "Fight Song," a "Staff and Crew Photo Gallery," and the theatrical trailer.

— Clarence Beaks

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