Michael Moore, Bowling For Columbine

The first time I watched Bowling for Columbine was this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, where European camera crews crowded outside the screening room eager for confirmation from exiting American journalists that the United States really is the culturally barren territory of gun-crazy idiots and weasels that filmmaker Michael Moore makes it out to be. And I was dismayed by the gleeful excitement of my international colleagues, their stupidest opinions of America confirmed by a large, unkempt, rambunctious shlub of a native who wears his gimme cap the way other stars favor sunglasses.

The second time I watched ”Bowling for Columbine” was last week in my New York neighborhood, in a full theater on a Friday night when a sniper in the Washington, D.C., area was still terrifying citizens. The weary, urban audience around me didn’t need to be told that there are gun-crazy idiots and weasels in the land, but they enjoyed the opportunity to laugh (rather than weep) at the proof anyhow. And I was dismayed, because I realized Michael Moore — the guy who made ”Roger & Me” and the best-selling author of ”Stupid White Men” — is one of the only large, unkempt, rambunctious shlubs around doing this provocative stuff on a popular, mass-movie level. We need his noisy, cocky energy, his passion and class consciousness; we need his shticks, we need his stones.

We also need more filmmakers on the left to challenge Moore and to do the kind of stuff he does, only better. Because as a political provocateur, he’s a one-man gang that can’t shoot straight. Among Moore’s points in ”Bowling for Columbine” is that guns are neutral things in themselves, but lethal in the hands of a certain kind of inflamed American — and awfully easy for Americans to acquire. (Moore opens a bank account just to get the rifle that comes as a gift to new customers.) He argues that in a right-to-bear-arms/gotta-defend-the-homeland culture like ours, lenient gun-control laws and easily obtainable weapons are a dangerous combination. And for tragic proof, he replays the terrible story of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed and died at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. (About the title: Bowling was the boys’ first class on the morning of their shooting spree.) An unspooling of the security-camera coverage of the two on their rampage, accompanied by audiotape of eyewitness accounts, is horrifying; Moore also enlists a couple of students who survived the carnage — one is in a wheelchair, paralyzed — to assist him in a ”Roger & Me”-like assault on Kmart, the company from which the Columbine bullets were bought.

But as in all his movie and TV work, Moore can’t resist detours that provide momentary fun — and lingering confusion about his intentions. ”Bowling for Columbine” includes footage of Chris Rock’s sharp comedy riff about expensive bullets as a crime deterrent; an impossibly compacted, maddeningly superficial history of American foreign-policy hypocrisies; a powerful indictment of Michigan’s ”welfare to work” policies (complicit, Moore concludes, in the shooting death of one 6-year-old child by another in his hometown of Flint); and a ”South Park”-ish nod to Canadians, who, apparently, keep a lot of guns too, but don’t use them on one another. (They also don’t lock their front doors; Moore opens a few and draws a national conclusion.)

The relentless bombardment of info-bits is the movie’s appeal, and maybe Moore — who grew up around firearms and who became a lifetime member of the NRA after Columbine to agitate for change from within — is right: Maybe scatter-shooting is the most effective trick for keeping general audiences entertained enough to entertain serious questions about controversial issues. But Moore has never overcome his polemical weakness for getting more fun out of making detours than out of making points. And his signature move — of waylaying people in positions of power, or at least documenting his righteous failure to do so — only grows less pleasing with repeated use.

Certainly the receptionists, security guards, and lower-level staffers caught in the camera don’t deserve the discomfort. And even the big fish who swim into Moore’s net merit better sport. He barely dings Dick Clark about the low-wage welfare-to-work employees who staff one of Clark’s mall-food establishments in Michigan, but Moore gets momentarily close to actor and NRA president Charlton Heston, who makes the mistake (hubris? vanity? frailty?) of allowing the filmmaker into his Los Angeles home.

The documentarian may have a valid complaint — that Heston and the NRA showed outrageous insensitivity in showing up for rallies in Littleton and Flint soon after child-on-child gun violence. What Moore wants to get from the encounter (and what he wanted the audience to enjoy), however, is troublesome. As the actor (foolish old man? canny representative of a powerful lobbying group?) courteously but abruptly concludes the interview and makes his rickety way down the corridor to privacy, even Moore’s target ticket-buyers are likely to squirm with concern, unsure of who the real weasels and idiots are in this large, unkempt, rambunctious country of ours.

Bowling For Columbine
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes