Friday, November 18, 2011

Michael Moore Phones In A Documentary: Bowling For Columbine

The Good: Some valid points to be made
The Bad: Moore fails to make them as well as he could
The Basics: In a surprisingly emotional documentary, Michael Moore explores the issue of gun violence with little zest and less solutions.

Despite not having seen Sicko yet, I'm a fan of Michael Moore's documentaries. I loved his short-lived show TV Nation (why isn't that on DVD yet?!), was moved by the magnificent Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) and even thought the points made in Roger & Me were well made and well-executed. So, when I sat down to watch Bowling For Columbine on DVD, I expected to be informed, entertained and intrigued. By the end of the two hour documentary, I felt none of those things.

Following the killings at Columbine High School, Michael Moore goes on a journey to find out what happened and explore the role firearms play in the American experience. He explores the culture of the United States that forced adults on welfare into the workforce into jobs that often involve hours of travel, the effect that has on the American family and the tragedies that occasionally result from a lack of supervision when children get into parent's firearms. He explores the role of the NRA in fighting any form of gun control and he takes a victim of a gun crime to the K-Mart corporate office to try to return the bullets still lodged within the youth.

The most positive aspect of the film Bowling For Columbine is that latter bit. By pushing the corporate office with their return policy, Moore and the student affect a real change; K-Mart alters their corporate policy on ammunition sales. As an advocate for responsible gun ownership and reasonable gun control, I see this as a positive effect of the film.

The film also does an effective job of breaking the links between violent crimes and the usual scapegoats. Moore sits down with Marilyn Manson, who was blamed by pundits as one of the causes of the Columbine shootings. Moore effectively diffuses any sense that the linkage between Manson and the shootings is anything substantial.

But Bowling For Columbine falls drastically short of doing anything but preaching to the choir. While hunting down Roger Smith in Roger & Me worked well, harassing Charlton Heston about a little girl's murder seemed more obnoxious than anything. Heston's section near the very end of the film is interesting and when Moore does not get his desired response from the actor, Heston ends the interview and walks off. Moore simply leaves the photograph of the dead girl at Heston's house and it plays poorly; it's sentimentalism that is getting in the way of Moore's valid points and arguments.

Sadly, this documentary is also the highest in emotionalism and least authoritarian in the voice of reason or factualism. Moore too often plays for the emotional reaction from the audience (i.e. hunting down Dick Clark) as opposed to appealing to a rational sense of logic. Completely absent from the argument is the idea that most gun owners cling to; that gun ownership is more a matter of freedom and keeping the government at a distance than actually owning a firearm. In short, it's more the principle than the actual act.

But Bowling For Columbine is also absent any real and effective solutions. The question has always been; if the NRA is what's truly holding up responsible gun control (like keeping semiautomatic weapons or assault rifles off the streets or out of the gun shops), why doesn't every gun control activist simply join the NRA, vote in a President who will fight for that? It's not like the NRA is some secret society, so whoever is leading it is somewhat malleable based on the needs and desires of the constituents. Moore is a member of the NRA, why doesn't he use his documentary to launch a campaign for NRA President? It seems obvious; get all those moms from Rosie O'Donnell's "Million Mom March" to register for the NRA and vote Moore president, bam! You've got a gun control advocate sitting on the largest gun lobby money in the country.

Bowling For Columbine also neglects far too many of the personal responsibility arguments associated with gun control. The vast majority of guns in the United States are not used for crime and the vast majority of guns involved in crimes are not the ones legally purchased. Sure, it's funny to see Michael Moore head up to Canada and walk into people's house's because they don't lock their doors in suburban Toronto, but it does not honestly explore the gun culture or the issue of gun crime in the United States.

And yes, it is alarming to see the statistics of gun violence in the United States and it is certainly worthy of the time and attention of a documentary, especially of the caliber that Moore has proven he can do. The problem with Bowling For Columbine is that the points are not well made, it does not adequately explore the illegal gun trade in the United States and it does not offer genuine solutions to the problem. More than anything, Bowling For Columbine stirs up the waters on the issue and leaves the viewer in the murk.

On DVD there were few bonuses, mostly extended scenes and it did not add anything sufficient to the film. No, this is one where Michael Moore takes a swing and misses. Fortunately, it's a rarity for him.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Lost In La Mancha
Roger & Me
Why We Fight


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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