Bowling for Columbine

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A rant on gun control? That's what I expected when I went to this movie.

Directed by Michael Moore

Reviewed by Megan Shaw Prelinger

Tuesday, October 15 2002, 11:05 AM

A rant on gun control? That's what I expected when I went to this movie. What I got was a wildly entertaining piece of social commentary far more fascinating and multilayered than most films. It takes a lot of guts to make a polemical documentary that opens with a seemingly foregone conclusion but veers away from that conclusion two-thirds of the way through. But Bowling for Columbine does it expertly. The movie starts off as an anti-gun position piece and ends up in a complex and damning indictment of Americans' gut level propensity for violence that goes beyond gun culture. It challenges the common assumption that its audience probably expects it to confirm: that gun control alone could somehow curb this problem.

In the opening scene, filmmaker/protagonist/everyman Michael Moore wanders in to a small town bank that is also a licensed firearms dealer. The audience is hooked immediately into his amazement with their bullet-loving promotional offer: a free shotgun with the opening of a new certificate of deposit. This sequence seems calculated to draw urban, coastal Americans into a knee-jerk flight response to small town America's gun-toting monoculture. But after opening an account and receiving a shotgun from the bank, Moore then segues to an autobiographical sequence that fixes him firmly within the context of American gun owners and users. We see Moore as a tot wielding a toy gun, we hear about his membership in the Junior National Rifle Association, and see him recieving an award for JNRA Marksman of the year as a teenager.

By framing his exploration into gun obsession as a personal journey, Moore naturalizes his investigation in a way that is absolutely critical to the success of his interviews. His interview subjects -- from a former producer of COPS to teenage wasteoids who build bombs in their spare time -- come off as creditable and worth listening to because Moore has engaged them as peers rather than vilifying them or presenting them as wackos. He also introduces a geographic structure to the film by starting with his early experiences with guns in Michigan, and returning to Michigan again and again throughout the film. An early sequence in the film explains that the Oscota, Michigan airfield launched twenty percent of the bombs dropped in the Gulf War. Moore notes that future Columbine shooter Eric Harris had lived there as a kid while his dad flew military planes. The concluding sequence of the film is based on the school shooting death of a six-year-old girl in Flint.

The shooting at Columbine High School in April of 2000 is the anchor event in the film as the title suggests, but it is more of a jumping-off point than a dominating narrative. To try to understand why Columbine happened, Moore starts at Columbine and then takes progressive steps back from it, with each step taking in a bigger piece of the ambient culture of violence. Haunting black and white surveillance footage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on their school library rampage pulls us intimately in to the tragedy of that day. But Moore looks beyond the high school itself almost immediately and opens up the community surrounding it, easily finding a bigger villain than Smith & Wesson. Littleton, Colorado is a town where Lockheed Martin is the biggest employer, yet is not the only weapons manufacturer in the area. In Littleton, bombs are trucked across town in the middle of the night while the children are sleeping.

This is where Moore starts to push the thesis his audience hasn't been cued to suspect: Americans' propensity for interpersonal violence is underpinned by our culture of fear and aggression, as exemplified by not just by the high body counts in our streets and homes but by the ruthlessness of our military. Intercut with interviews with a Lockheed Martin executive is a collage sequence of U.S. military atrocities. The brutal numbers of innocent lives lost in Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and many more, are old news to longtime radicals. But it was deeply exciting to think of these images and statistics being projected on to the big screen from Boise to Baltimore as this film is shown across the country in mainstream cinemas.

Backing further away from Littleton and into the heart of mainstream civilian life, Moore pushes the film deep into naming and describing our dominant culture of fear. He damns the mainstream news media for their incessant insistence that black men are to be feared. He rips news sequences right off the screen and into our faces, showing newscasters perpetrating fear of "Africanized" bees that can mostly be distinguished from the "normal" European bees by their exaggerated physical characteristics. He goes to the intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles and hassles white cops who are looking for black men to bother. Moore confronts them by challenging them to go arrest someone for air pollution. Back in Flint Michigan, he interviews the city attorney who says that the city's gun problem lies with white suburban kids, not black urban ones.

At the heart of the film is the question of why the U.S. loses over 11,000 people to guns every year when no other country's fatalities exceed 400. To answer this question, Moore goes to Canada. There he finds the predictable -- a country where no one locks their front door; teenagers who tease rather than assault the people they dislike; headline news flashes about new speedbumps; adults who can't recall ever hearing about more than one murder. But then comes the rub: Moore can just as easily buy guns and ammunition in Canada as he can in the U.S. And he finds that gun ownership is *just as* prevalent there as here. This is where, by his own admission, he changed the thesis of his movie in mid-shoot.

The comparison with Canada goes deep and dominates the second half of the film. Moore investigates the prevalence of violent movies in Canada, the alienation of youth, ethnic diversity, the prevalence of gun culture, and comes up with the conclusion that Canada differs substantially from the U.S. in only two explanatory senses: Canadians' basic attitude of trust and friendship regarding their neighbors, and their media's representations of violence. In both of these areas, and these areas only, Canadians are drastically differentiated from Americans.

Throughout the film Moore mentions the history of the NRA and ties it closely with the history of white Americans' fear of African-Americans. He points out that the NRA was "coincidentally" founded in the same year that the KKK was founded. And in following the story of the Columbine shooting early in the film, and the shooting of a six-year-old girl in Flint Michigan toward the end of the film, Moore chronicles the NRA pro-gun rallies that were held in both locations within weeks of the respective shootings. NRA president Charlton Heston presided over those rallies, and at the end of the movie Moore pulls all these threads together in "Roger & Me" style by pursuing a one-on-one interview with Heston.

Unlike in "Roger & Me," Moore is actually successful in this movie with his campaigns to interview witnesses hostile to his case. Although the movie wraps up with Moore's face-to-face confrontation with Heston, Heston's age and inarticulateness make this scene ultimately unsatisfying. Several months before the movie was released, Heston went public with his Alzheimer's disease. For me, knowing this took the punch even out of Heston's racist excuse that Americans are maybe more violent than other countries because we have a greater ethnic mix.

Much more exciting is the campaign Moore embarks on with two Columbine survivors to get K-Mart to stop selling ammunition. Apparently Harris and Klebold had purchased their ammunition at K-Mart in preparation for Columbine. And Moore's two companion survivors both carry bullets around in their bodies. This trio of activists, in true "Roger & Me" style, badgered the folks at corporate headquarters repeatedly, until the company provided the emotional climax to the film by announcing the phaseout of ammunition sales.

My only real critique of this movie is that Moore could have gone a lot further to tie together his points about white Americans' fear of African-Americans with his thesis that Canadians almost the same as us. He neglects to mention that Canada does not have a comparable history of slavery, which could go a long ways toward explaining why white Canadians are so much less afraid of their nonwhite neighbors. I also thought that the bowling theme was weakly linked in throughout, although I can't really argue with how much levity it added.

Yes, levity! Go see this movie because it is hilarious! See it to find out what happens to Moore when he repeatedly walks into people's houses in Canada without knocking, just to find out if their front doors were really unlocked. See it to find out how American Bandstand icon Dick Clark is implicated in the elementary school shooting in Flint, Michigan! See it for the Marilyn Manson interview! See it because it will break your heart and open your eyes.

Produced by Salter Street Films, 2002.

Megan Shaw Prelinger is a member of the Bad Subjects collective. 

Copyright © 2002 by Megan Shaw Prelinger. All rights reserved.

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