Bowling for Columbine
directed by Michael Moore
(United Artists, 2002)

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore became famous with the release of 1989's Roger & Me and infamous with his chiding of President Bush at the 2003 Academy Awards presentation. In between, he produced, directed, wrote and edited the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, a disturbing multipronged look at the 1999 shootings that led to the death of 12 students and a teacher at a high school in Littleton, Colo.

Not surprisingly, many of Moore's prongs lead him back to his native Michigan:

To a bank that hands out rifles with the purchase of certificates of deposit.

To a barbershop where he buys ammunition while he gets his hair cut.

To the farm where Timothy McVey and Terry Nichols practiced making bombs before trying one out for real in Oklahoma City.

To an Air Force Base where one of the Littleton shooters spent part of his childhood.

And to an elementary school near Flint, Mich., site of another school shooting, in which a 6-year-old boy shot and killed one of his classmates for reasons no one yet understands.

But it's not Michigan that becomes the target of Moore's wit or concern, or even the lax gun laws that made it possible for the Littleton shooters to obtain the semiautomatic weapons and 900 rounds of ammunition they used on their schoolmates.

Moore is seeking a bigger target: the climate of fear used by merchandisers and manufacturers to ratchet up consumption, by politicians to promote their ends and by TV stations and producers to garner better ratings. The last of these leads Moore to one of his finer comic moments: he pitches a pilot for a TV show called Corporate Cops, in which he chases down CEO swindlers with the same fervor Cops uses to bring down purse snatchers.

And that, of course, is one of the wonders and the joys of Moore's work at its best: that he is able to move from deeply serious treatment of the shootings themselves to wonderfully ironic commentary that lightens things up just enough to let viewers proceed to the next tragedy.

For example: A comment by an interviewee leads Moore to investigate why Canada, a stone's throw from his native Michigan, seems to lack both the climate of fear and the homicide problem of its neighbor to the south. So Moore decides to test for himself the assertion that Canadians don't lock their doors -- by walking down a street in Toronto and simply opening the doors.

Bowling is probably best-known for Moore's interview with Charlton Heston, then president of the National Rifle Association, who subsequently walked out on Moore.

But Moore is much better in interviews with less well-known folks -- members of the Michigan militia, including one of the militia's well-armed "Calendar Babes" (a militia fund-raiser), or Nichols' brother, John, who, despite his firm embrace of the Second Amendment, thinks there should be limits placed on ownership of some weapons, such as plutonium bombs. ("There's wackos out there," he tells Moore.) It's here where, unfettered by his own polemical points, Moore lets people -- gun owners and Second Amendment advocates, mostly -- shoot themselves in the foot (or elsewhere).

Finally, Moore is at the very top of his form when he's making connections: weaving together seemingly disparate film clips -- everything from old black-and-white toy-gun TV commercials and bowling promotional films to color home movies of his Michigan childhood and a South Park-style history of the United States, inspired, no doubt, by his interview with South Park co-creator Matt Stone, who grew up in, you guessed it, Littleton.

Bowling for Columbine -- named that because the shooters went bowling before school on that fateful day -- is hardly the last word on the subject of school shootings or gun control or homicide in the United States. But it is a provocative one, wide-ranging yet tightly edited, oddly entertaining and, at times, devastating.

Take it for what it is -- a one-sided diatribe on a very complicated issue. But take it.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 3 April 2004

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