Given the very sad news of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School I couldn't help but think of Michael Moore's Academy Award winning documentary "Bowling For Columbine" (2002), Moore's thought provoking, satirical look at America's gun culture. On a side note, I have found in the era of Chancellor Trump, Michael Moore has become more and more relevant as I have re-watched all of his documentaries since last year.
When I read the newspaper (yes, I read an actual newspaper) sometimes I read op-ed pieces. Before I read the article I always check, at the bottom, the small bio of the author first. Why? So I can understand who is writing the article and what their agenda is. What is it they are trying to sell me and am I interested in buying? It is always important to know who is giving you information. Every newspaper, news channel and website has an agenda. Of course, depending on our disposition we are incline to accept some agendas over others.
I mention this because Michael Moore and his documentaries have been considered controversial. Moore's right-wing critics believe he plays fast and loose with facts. Others believe he engages in outrageous theatrics, some I will get to later in this particular documentary. It is true Moore has an agenda. To be specific, it is a politically left leaning agenda. Personally I do not consider Moore a documentarian. I consider him a filmmaker. There is a distinction. Michael Moore makes movies in which he brilliantly creates a viewpoint through humor and editing. There is a lot of useful information in his movies. Does it present both sides? Only to the extent to claim the other side is wrong. But I am okay with that because I am usually in agreement with Moore's agenda. I also don't hold him to high journalistic standards. I watch his movies for entertainment. The fact that there is useful information is icing on the cake. It present a complete package. It entertains and informs.
"Bowling For Columbine" was controversial when it was released in theatres. It would be controversial today if audiences watched it again. The topic of guns will always be a touchy subject because of the extremes at both ends of the debate. However, Michael Moore asks a question in "Bowling For Columbine" that he cannot answer and probably could not be answered today either but deserves an answer. What makes America so different compared to other countries when it comes to gun violence? Why do so many people die at the hands of guns in this country when the rates are so low elsewhere? What is wrong with America? Why are we so violent?
There had been other school shootings in the United States prior to the one at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one teacher were killed before to the two teenager shooters shot themselves. Moore uses this tragic event as a springboard to start a conversation. And, as I say it is a rhetorical conversation with Moore asking questions he has no answers for. Realistically you can't expect Moore to solve the gun issue but you can reasonably expect him to have a point of view and state his opinion on the matter. Moore runs through the checklist of possible explanations; the U.S. has a violent history, poverty, high unemployment, race but then one by one discredits those theories yet spends the remainder of the documentary exploring each concept. It may be the one flaw of the movie. Moore has no answer for the problem but by the end of the movie, this viewer at least, is left to believe the answer is all of the above. There isn't one reason explaining gun deaths in America. It is poverty, race, unemployment and a new one Moore adds to the list, fear.
On a second viewing "Bowling For Columbine" is about more than guns. It is about society in general. As Moore discusses a culture of fear and poverty naturally we are getting into larger issues beyond guns. Moore discusses another school shooting after Columbine where a six year old boy in Flint, Michigan took his uncle's loaded gun to school and shot and killed a fellow six year old student. Moore uses this event to explain maybe this wouldn't have happened if the boy's mother wasn't working two jobs. She was on welfare and as part of the Welfare to Work program. The mother would take a 40 mile bus ride from Flint to Auburn Hills. She worked two jobs and was still unable to pay her rent. Faced with an eviction notice she asked her brother if her son could stay with him. This leads to all sorts of other questions like how is it possible people in the United States can work two jobs and still not make enough money to live? Why can't companies pay their employees a living wage? And why do we demonize the poor and make people feel bad if they are on welfare? You know what kind of welfare makes my blood boil? Corporate welfare. What a bunch of mooches!
To explain a culture of fear Moore goes to Canada, where he humorously learns people do not lock their house doors. Moore points out there are a lot of guns in Canada but their death rates are nowhere near the levels in America. According to Moore's statics there were more than 11,000 gun related deaths in the U.S. in 2001 and 165 in Canada.The difference Moore says is the media. In America, our news reports on constant shootings, which Moore believes forces white Americans to want to buy guns to protect themselves from the black shooters they see on news reports. Moore presents the Canadian news are presenting stories on new speed bumps. It is all very innocent.
That leads to the issue of Michael Moore always creating outrageous theatrics and taking cheap shots. Has the Canadian news ever reported on a new speed bump? I'm sure. We saw the footage. Is that typical of the news Canadian citizens hear every day? C'mon! But that may be the least of the attention grabbing theatrics presented in the movie. One of the more memorable may be Moore walking into a bank in Michigan where if you open an account you will receive a new gun. You see the bank is also a licensed gun dealer and according to Moore's movie, the bank has guns kept onsite in a vault. The bank has disputed this claim but Moore stands by what is depicted onscreen.
There is also a segment where Moore speaks to survivors of the Columbine shooting and meets two students that still have bullets in their body. It is revealed the bullets were bought at Kmart. Moore gets the idea of how about he takes the kids to Kmart and get a refund for the bullets. Besides putting Kmart on the spot and perhaps good for a cheap laugh, in theory, ultimately what is the point of this? Ironically it leads to a great change in one of Kmart's policies which actually leaves Michael Moore speechless. I will not reveal the outcome here.
But maybe the most famous sequence is Michael Moore meeting with Charlton Heston, who at the time was the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Of course if you are going to make a documentary about guns it would be interesting to speak to someone from the NRA and speaking to the president of the organization would be quite the catch. On the flip side I cannot understand why Heston would agree to the interview. He claims to know who Michael Moore is but I doubt it. Maybe he got him confused with Roger Moore. Regardless, some feel Moore took advantage of Heston, who revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's but appears in his right state of mind. I find their time together perfectly justified on Moore's part. He asks Heston serious questions. The same questions Moore has been asking throughout the movie. Why does America seem to have a gun problem...ect.
What is most revealing about the sequence is what it not said which may hit one of Moore's points across. Heston lives on a very large estate. He lives in a gated home with security cameras. It is also a wealthy neighborhood in California. Yet Heston reveals he keeps a loaded gun in the home even though he admits to Moore he has never been he victim of crime, no one has ever broken into his home and he feels safe in the neighborhood. Why does he have a gun at all? Yes, he is he president of the NRA and it would seem rather silly if he didn't own a gun but he feeds to a larger point. These men argue they need a gun, all Americans need a gun, for protection. Heston and other rich privileged men are protected without the gun. They have never experienced violence. They are hypocrites. Yes, the right to bear arms is in the Bill of Rights and as a result every American has the right to own a gun, the problem is with so many guns in the U.S. it leads to so much violence and the people who buy the guns have no real justification for owning it in the first place. It is not for protection, they aren't hunters...ect.
"Bowling For Columbine" was Moore's third feature length documentary, coming after "Roger & Me" (1989) and "The Big One" (1997) but also after his first, and so far only, fictional directorial effort, "Canadian Bacon" (1995). Looking at it in hindsight it really goes over so much of the material Moore would later address in future efforts like "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004), "Sicko" (2006) and "Where To Invade Next" (2016). In some ways it makes for an appropriate place to start if you are unfamiliar with Michael Moore's work. It has also been the only documentary he has won an Academy Award for as of today's date.
For me the documentary lacks a bit of focus and takes on too much but there is a lot of good information here and it is typical Micheal Moore. He presents his material in a grand sweeping and humorous way that is entertaining from beginning to end. I don't know that this is Moore's best documentary but it definitely deserves to be seen again even in these rather unfortunate times we are living in now. The issue of gun violence has not improved since the years after this. It remains relevant.