If you're a fan of the baseball cap-wearin', Nader-votin', muckrakin', best-sellin', corporation-confrontin' son of a gun known as Michael Moore, all you need to know about his latest film, Bowling for Columbine, is that it's more of the same. You know, the mix of easy humor, political potshots, attempts (some successful, most not) at interviewing and confronting corporate crooks, and the odd emotional sucker punch that'll leave you in horror until he comes back with a laugh a few minutes later. Tonal shifts are what Moore does best -- there are numerous moments in this film, as in Roger and Me, that may make you cry, but by the end you'll be laughing again, yet doing so in a manner that neither negates nor trivializes the impact of his more serious points.
Given that Nader got less than 5 percent of the national vote, however, and that Moore's previous films and TV shows have not been blockbusters, he can't have a successful movie if only folks like him go. So how does it shape up if you're not among the acolytes?
Hard to say, but one would suspect that it might be hit and miss. The movie's a look at the United States' gun culture, an exploration provoked by the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 (prior to the shooting spree, Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went bowling, hence the title): the same day, Moore tells us, that the U.S. dropped more bombs on the former Yugoslavia than on any other occasion. As he first shows up on camera, Moore is opening a bank account at a financial institution that gives its patrons free guns. Later, he buys bullets in a barbershop. Soon, he's hanging out with the Michigan militia, the group to which Timothy McVeigh infamously belonged, and they lead him to James Nichols, brother of McVeigh's co-conspirator, Terry. Nichols proves to be both scary and unintentionally hilarious, blaming his troubles with the law solely on his ex-wife, advocating armed revolt, and when asked by Moore what he thinks about Gandhi's philosophy, pausing to declare, "I'm not familiar with that."
Conservatives, if they plan on lining Moore's pockets with ticket money and actually seeing this thing, may well go in on the defensive -- and why not? Moore's generally known for criticizing all their beliefs. But there's one liberal standby that goes unsaid: No one in the film ever mentions or advocates gun control. Moore does try to get Kmart to stop selling ammunition, and to some that may sound like the same thing, but he never proposes the banning of guns. The film will probably surprise many liberals, too, with its look at guns in other countries -- turns out Canadians love their firearms as much as we do. Yet they don't even lock their front doors.
Where Bowling for Columbine is at its most valuable is in its examination of America's culture of fear as a root cause of gun violence. Fears of race, scary TV news stories, Y2K, and others are all shown as examples, including a particularly hilarious (and genuine) news story on "Africanized" killer bees that are "more aggressive" and have "bigger body parts" than "European" bees. Why fear and paranoia are so pervasive over here isn't clear, though Marilyn Manson shows up with a plausible explanation: "Keep everyone afraid, and they'll consume" (his own career is perhaps proof of that much).
The film's biggest weakness is that it doesn't always stay on point, and it occasionally goes for the cheap shot -- honestly, do we need to see footage from Columbine security cameras or the first World Trade Center plane crash again? Moore's on the ball when he uses humor to make his points, but he tends to overcompensate -- a montage of CIA atrocities set to Louis Armstrong music is used to negate an average guy's pro-America outlook, and Moore might as well be squashing a fly with a mallet.
Which brings up another question: Can't Moore find a conservative who's a good debater? It seems that any time he actually manages to confront a heavy hitter, said big shot merely walks away or slams the door when confronted with a question he or she doesn't like (Nike CEO Phil Knight was the rare exception in Moore's book-tour documentary, The Big One). It makes the exchanges seem one-sided -- which may be the point, since his movies tend to preach to the converted. As a result, the film's not as informative as it could be; as websites like Spinsanity.org have documented, Moore can get sloppy with his fact-checking. Now, if an ideologue from the opposite end of the spectrum -- say, Bill O'Reilly or someone like that -- were to debate Moore on camera, that would be interesting. Which isn't to say that Moore's wrong and O'Reilly's right (the converse is far more likely!) -- rather, that a worthy opponent will force a man to strengthen his arguments.
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