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Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) 2002
Provocative documentarian Michael Moore comes out prepped for a strike with Bowling for Columbine, his treatise on American gun violence, but ends up rolling a complete gutter ball. Gutter ball is an appropriate term to describe this film, in which Moore masks his seedy willingness to ambush interviewees emotionally and sleazily distort facts under the guise of doing a good deed. Always the underdog, heís fighting hard against just about everyone here, but mostly heís fighting to give a movie thatís saddled with a terminally unclear thesis some sense of gravitas. In an effort to demonstrate to us how difficult his quest is he ends up overplaying his hand greatly while showing us his struggle. No longer is Moore the same small town guy from Roger & Me, so his attempts to appear unchanged are unconvincing. He now has clout, but still conducts his interviews with the same methods as before, and plays stupid or misleads his interviewees to entrap them. Many of the people he catches on camera are only trying to do their jobs as police officers, security guards, or public relations workers, and the superiority that Moore encourages the audience to feel over them is disgusting. What exactly is the proper response for a corporation or police officer to have when faced with a tragedy like a school shooting? Iím not sure there is one, but itís impossible to imagine anyone who could formulate any reasonable answer with Mooreís camera crew inches from his or her face (and his merciless editing room techniques close behind). Obviously convinced that most of the people who he talks with are morons, Moore elides anything cogent that most of his interviewees with any opposing viewpoint has to say. By the end of the movie, instead of coming off like a stand-in for the common man, Moore appears utterly contemptuous of any sort of human fallibility. Heís outraged at the drop of the hat and tries his darnedest to get his audience fuming too.
Offering non-stop righteous indignation while attempting to expose the way that the media sells people unwarranted fear and encourages hate, Moore seems to not realize that his approach is awfully similar to the one that heís attacking. For example, instead of simply saying that the US murder rate is roughly five times as bad as the one in Canada, he compares the raw numbers of crimes with no regard for population differences, making the disparity sound even greater than it is. That sort of apples and oranges comparison is the rule here. He has a sociologist say a bit about the increase of the news mediaís coverage of murders in the United States, but never presents hard data regarding the same trends in Canada. Instead, we watch him wander into a series of peoplesí homes (not mentioning whether or not he was able find a single locked door in the country) as he draws the conclusion that if people are leaving their doors unlocked, they must feel safe. In my hometown in rural Pennsylvania, we never locked the doors, but that really doesnít have anything to do with anything on a national scale.
No one supports school shootings or other gun crimes and as such itís next to impossible to disagree with most of what Moore says in Bowling for Columbine. Still, he posits himself as a one-man crusade in an apparent effort to build his celebrity. Never does he ask fellow anti-gun activists to talk. American political discourse is founded on the presence of free debate, but Mooreís approach suggests that if everyone followed his rules, the country would be saved. Itís unfortunate then that someone so charismatic and self-confident doesnít have anything more profound to say. His generally obvious observations are wobbly at best and tied together mostly with that always-sticky liberal guilt (notice how he intones ďone of the wealthiest areas in the countyĒ repeatedly). When Moore argues against the right to bear arms he sets forth an admirable stance, but then soon he also begins bellyaching about how public schools kicked kids out of class for bringing what were perceived as weapons to school. He seems to be scrambling about looking for things to be outraged about and shifting his viewpoint to accommodate each new bout of indignation, and as such he rarely convinces. The connections between the aura of fear that surrounds us all and the Columbine shootings is a tenuous one, but when he extends it to a six-year oldís gun murder that occurred in his hometown, the thread snaps. Itís difficult to think that first graders have a finger on the pulse of the undercurrent of Puritanical fear that Moore argues runs deep within our countryís bloodstream and manifests itself in our news media.
The problem Moore sees with media manipulation can only be solved by freethinking in the public, but the director manipulates facts and edits the film so the audience can only realistically be expected to see the information presented in the film in the light that he desires. By leading his audience to a singular conclusion in the manner that he does, Moore only makes the audience think that they are drawing their own conclusions. They arenít though. Watching the movie is like looking at a connect-the-dots puzzle with the dots already connected for you. Still, the gratification that most of the audience will feel after watching the film (evidenced by the applause that filled the auditorium after I saw it) is calculated so that the audience thinks Moore is helping them see the light, when he is in fact manipulating them. Because he presents himself as an everyman, but at the same time presents himself as superior to everyone who hasnít suffered greatly, the audience can easily align with Moore and tell themselves, ďIím glad Iím not part of the problem!Ē simply because they watched his film (and essentially bought into the rage heís selling). I suppose the irony is that free thinkers wonít need this film since they will have already considered all of the rather obvious ideas presented in it. For the record, I donít have a handgun, and I donít watch the news. I donít think that this makes me superior to anyone, but I certainly donít feel enveloped in fear as Moore suggests all Americans do.
That line of thinking becomes irrelevant to Moore anyway in Bowlingís final act, where he pulls two audacious stunts that ignore the position that heís built up until that point. First, he recruits a duo of survivors from the Columbine school attacks to travel with him to the K-Mart headquarters so that they might convince the retailer, who sold the bullets used in the attack, to stop selling handgun ammunition. The entire enterprise feels completely misguided and opportunistic since Moore has essentially stated all along in his film that the availability of handguns and ammunition is not the cause of gun violence. The stunt feels like a sick photo opportunity (Moore brings along the media heís attacking to apply pressure on K-Mart) as they fight a fight that doesnít really need to be fought. The obvious question arises about whether those kids would have felt compelled to rally against K-Mart had Moore not befriended them, but perhaps the more pertinent question is whether or not Moore would have gone with them had he not been able to bring his camera along.
The second of his attacks, which seems much more personal, singles out NRA spokesperson Charlton Heston. After being invited into his home under false pretenses, Moore begins aggressively questioning Heston about the causes of gun violence. Even though heís conditioned his audience to only accept ďthe climate of fearĒ as the answer to this question, Moore doesnít mention the mediaís involvement when talking with Heston. He has him pegged as a bad guy, and has no interest in trying to sway his opinion. Instead of asking tough questions that would prompt intelligent responses, he discards his thesis to mug for the camera, making me wonder how much stock Moore even places in his own theories to begin with. As a result, the discussion feels less like a debate than an attempt to embarrass the interviewee, and Moore comes off as an ogre as a result. When Heston wises up to Mooreís tactics and storms off, the film expects us to boo Heston for walking away from a sneak attack (just as it expects us to do when Dick Clark responds similarly earlier in the film), but I felt like booing Moore for stooping so low. It only gets worse from there as Moore turns on his concern for the victims of school shootings and pleads with Heston to look at a photo of a little girl who was shot that heís brought along with him. This revolting display is typical of Bowling for Columbineís approach. Even the few quality bits of footage included, such as the interview with Marilyn Manson in which the rock singer first proposes the climate of fear theory that Moore spends the rest of the film unsuccessfully attempting to explain or the bit of found news footage that correlates ďAfricanizedĒ killer bees with the mediaís inherent racism, barely register in comparison with Mooreís oversized ego.