Release Date: October 11th, 2002 (US limited); November 15th, 2002 (UK)
Genre: Documentary; History
Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, somewhat pithily christened Bowling for Columbine, is undoubtedly a seminal piece. For Moore personally, it gained the director an Academy Award and the chance to extend some sentiments splashed throughout his film to a plush Hollywood crowd in LA’s Kodak Theatre. (Some booed, some cheered, Tommy Lee Jones probably sat stone-faced.) It also smashed international box office records in places such as the United Kingdom upon release, becoming the financial brass ring to which other documentaries aspired — ironically, Moore would go on to eclipse himself with Fahrenheit 9/11.
Though, carrying more importance than these aforementioned amenities, Bowling for Columbine debates unavoidable issues that are still firmly rooted in the bricks and mortar of society. And Moore frequently wins. His film is a bit of ego-trip, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the chief’s unwavering histrionics often inject a tragically informative piece with a comedic edge. That being said, his manifesto is never relinquished in favour of entertainment. Notwithstanding the occasional needless tactic, Bowling for Columbine successfully eradicates the clouds that surround its thought-provoking themes. What’s presented, in turn, rains with disquieting reality.
Moore targets gun crime and, in doing so, uses the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as the seed from which each of his arguments grow. The film is a generally political, sporadically cultural and universally societal look at trigger-happy violence in America and its central question is: Why? Why did thirteen innocent people die at school? And why is America’s gun crime resoundingly higher than the rest of the world’s?
Each argument is an extension of the last, and his agents of remonstration spread fairly far. We begin down a bowling alley and conclude in the company of Charlton Heston. Moore strives to maintain a potent arc along his two hour discussion and more or less accomplishes this. He links each chapter well — the revolver road-trip stops off at a variety of places, from a rifle-offering bank to the house of a man whose participation in the Oklahoma City bombing was once in question — and, in doing so, implements a solid narrative structure. There are a few rocky detours that see some less-effective moments; an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson is a bit flimsy. Moore disguises any unsatisfactory points though. He shrewdly converses with the right people as a means to substantiate his own agenda. Which is fine, it doesn’t negatively affect the arguments presented because an authentic base is already in place.
That base is Columbine. Although the film isn’t about the actual shooting — Moore’s decision not to stray down what would have been an easily rewarding path, in terms of emotional gravitas, is admirable — the tragedy is always lingering in the background. In fact, the director actually references the location of Columbine High School at one point, indicating that its direct centrality amongst discussion involving guns, bombs and violence isn’t simply metaphorical. Given the very real presence of the atrocity, notions of disgust and negativity towards gun culture are already firmly embedded in our minds. Moore’s numerous assertions against said culture, therefore, are instantly credible.
A particular sequence intended to give an overview of Columbine is inherently powerful, but not exploitative. There’s no argument-shilling at this point, only a picture of humankind at its most despicable. It’s so disgruntling that the subsequent scene might implore the viewer to detest one of cinema’s most iconic figures in a swift rifle-raising action and four contextually chilling words (“Over my dead body”) — just one example of Kurt Engfehr’s wholly astute editing that motions proceedings along at an engaging pace.
Music is also effectively enforced. The now infamous “What a Wonderful World” montage would be quite amusing if it weren’t steeped in such fraught subject matter. Indeed, Bowling for Columbine thrives on destitute comedy. One of the earliest examples sets the darkly humorous prerogative; Moore enters a bank and opens an account in order to obtain a free gun. After a few minutes where the staff aren’t paraded in a particularly flattering light, Moore exits, rifle aloft. The scene is too outrageous to fully comprehend — its authenticity has been disputed in one of many controversies since release — but the filmmaker doesn’t pass up an opportunity for funny. (“D’you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”)
The climate of fear is a prominent thread throughout. Does Moore blame guns? Not entirely. It’s the gun culture. The media scaremongering. Even the US government’s foreign policy hailing a bomb as a solution, according to Moore. These collectively add up to the main source of gun-related disaster in America. Today, over a decade later, Moore still flaunts this strongly asserted claim: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” One of the film’s most compelling parts is an interview with Marilyn Manson, whose well-formed explanation in regards to media exploitation is practical and persuasive. (We hear that crime is down by 20%, but television coverage is up by 600%.)
It’s all going swimmingly until a K-Mart segment towards the film’s conclusion. Shadowed by two victims of Columbine, Moore leads his verbal assault against the store. It almost comes around in the end, but by then Moore’s ego is edging towards the spotlight. Only, rather than positively affecting proceedings, this time his overly aggressive personality is distracting. However it should be noted that the stunt’s positive outcome absolutely justifies the slightly crass piece of filmmaking from which it spawns.
Overall, Moore completes a stellar job of informing and convincing. Despite sporadically venturing down peripheral avenues, the film holds together tightly and is even genuinely funny at times. Ultimately though, this is a damning indictment on not just America but society as a whole, exposing us at our very worst. If Bowling for Columbine was evidence in humanity’s trial, we’d be guilty as charged.
Images (©): United Artists