Bowling For Columbine (2002)

Directed by Michael Moore

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Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine tackles the gun issue in America.  Made 16 years ago, it is just as relevant, really more so, today.  Moore uses Columbine as a jumping off point, though it’s certainly not the focus of the film.  Really it is the last straw, or should have been, in a long series of events and fear-mongering that have encouraged America’s obsession with firearms.

There are many layers to tackle when discussing this film.  First, there’s the gun control issue itself, there’s a lot of time spent describing poverty and institutionalized racism, and there is an analysis of the insane amounts of fear-mongering in the news.  There is so much covered in this documentary subject-wise, and then you also need to discuss Michael Moore as a presence.  Like Werner Herzog or even someone like Morgan Spurlock, Moore is front and center in his films.

He has a point of view, and this will put off certain viewers, but it’s hard to disagree with anything he’s saying.  Moore has a lot to say, but as a storyteller he makes his point through certain stunts that might be seen as going too far or might be seen as the only way to get through to people.

I loved it.

The documentary opens with Michael Moore going to a bank in Colorado where you are given a free gun if you open a bank account.  He opens a bank account, gets his gun and smiles to the camera knowing he made his point.  Moore then goes on to discuss his own history with guns, him being an NRA member and from a gun-toting town in Michigan.

Over the course of the documentary we will go to his hometown of Flint, Michigan where a 6 year old shot another 6 year old, travel to inner city Los Angeles (ground zero of the LA riots), spend time in and around Littleton, Colorado where Columbine high school is located and even visit Canada to ask why there are so fewer gun-related deaths there.

The question is why there is so much more gun violence in America than in other nations.  Moore doesn’t explicitly offer an answer, but he gives us enough evidence to understand why.  He will ask this question to many people, including former NRA president Charlton Heston.  Their answers typically involve America’s violent history, racism, violence in the media, access to guns, terrorism and even Marilyn Manson.  Moore has an answer for each of these theories.

We talk to other nations with a similar percentage of gun owners where gun violence is much more suppressed.  Moore points out that other nations like Great Britain and Germany have equally as violent histories (if not more so) than America.  He goes to LA to combat stereotypes of south central Los Angeles, a place made to seem like the seventh level of hell but is actually quite ordinary.  We talk to Marilyn Manson who proves to be one of the most thoughtful interviewees in the entire movie.

Everyone has theories, but no one wants to do anything about it.  What Moore presents himself is a landscape dominated by fear.  We are told to be afraid by our country because it benefits our country financially to govern those in fear.  It’s very big brother-y, like 1984 or Brazil.

There’s a brief animation in the middle of the film which really spells this out.  We are a country of fearful people.  We came over from Britain to be free, slaughtered the Native Americans, brought over slaves and then became fearful of those slaves when they grew in number before creating the KKK and the NRA in the same year after the emancipation proclamation.

The animation goes on to cover the civil rights movement and the general fear-mongering of the media ever since.  Because of the “it bleeds, it leads” mentality, the news is smothered with stories of violence, encouraging a sense of fear that in no way correlates with the actual amount of violence in our country.

This leads to paranoia and people who buy guns in the name of self-protection, even when they’ve never had a direct reason before to buy one.  One of these people is Charlton Heston himself, the NRA leader whom Moore finally interviews at the end of the film.  He describes all the loaded guns he owns for self-protection, even though he’s never been in a situation in which he needed one.

The NRA is the main target of Moore’s documentary (pun maybe intended?).  They are a frustrating organization, to say the least, who cries foul about the second amendment when they feel the slightest threat about someone taking away their guns.

There is too much hypocrisy to be described among this group of people (most visible in James Nichols, a man linked to the Oklahoma City bombing), and Heston serves as the face of the organization.  He’s a blowhard who had a habit of hosting NRA rallies near the sites of recent tragedies as a way to fight the backlash against gun ownership in America.

It’s insensitive and a sign of their fear, but more than anything it’s just disgusting.

Bowling for Columbine is thought-provoking and occasionally absurd.  Moore is in almost every scene, and this omnipresence can be frustrating at times.  The content often needs little commentary as those interviewed almost always give away their hypocrisy or lunacy within a few words.  Just putting these people and these statistics on camera is enough.

Still, Moore pulls off a few stunts which force action, including one near the end of the documentary in which he and two Columbine shooting survivors visit K-Mart (where the shooters’ bullets were purchased) to ask for a refund for the bullets still in their bodies.  It’s a bit crazy, but maybe crazy is what it takes because a PR person for K-Mart announces that they would phase out ammunition sales within 90 days.

Michael Moore is a divisive figure because his beliefs are always in his films.  It’s a quality that might be considered unprofessional, but he doesn’t hide what he believes, and aren’t all documentaries subjective to a degree anyways?  It’s also something that Werner Herzog does himself, though his worldview (nihilism) is so striking that his point almost always seems to be that everything is sad and destined to fail anyways.  It’s a perspective that seems oddly omniscient while Moore immerses himself fully in his movies with a sense of passion and aggression.

No matter how you might feel about him, Michael Moore is an ambitious documentarian who tackles subjects that mean a lot to him.  The subjects of his attacks are almost always existing power structures or authority figures who can withstand such an attack.  Those are the people who need to answer questions for their behavior but are often powerful enough and wealthy enough to have someone else do it for them.

Up Next: The Post (2017), Vernon, Florida (1981), Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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