Bowling for Columbine
review by Elias Savada, 18 October 2002

Of the thirty-nine films I caught during the recently completed San Sebastian Film Festival (twenty as member of the New Directors Jury), the two that impressed me most contained some of the most violent imagery, Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday, a starkly draining day-in-the-damned-life recreation of the Derry, Northern Ireland massacre of thirteen unarmed civilians by British soldiers thirty years ago. And Michael Moore's just as biased Bowling for Columbine, which had already captured a special fifty-fifth Anniversary Prize as Cannes. I happened to catch this confrontumentary at a presentation where it was competing for the Pearl of the Audience Award, carrying a 30,000 Euro cash prize in aid towards a film's promotion. Columbine, which already had four unreelings early in the festival, was the second to last film of eighteen eligible entries screening in its field, a 9:30 PM presentation to a sold-out audience on September 27th, the day before San Sebastian closed its fifty-fifth annual outing. Among the other films that had been in strong contention: Aki Kaurismäki's Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä/The Man Without a Past (with a 3.373 out of a perfect 4 score); Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise (3.430), Bloody Sunday (3.556), Cidade de Deus (3.569), and Roman Polanski's The Pianist (3.538). At the end of the Columbine screening, in which I was undoubtedly one of the few Americans in the audience, I turned to fellow juror Alberto Elena and predicted victory. There was that much electricity in the room. Or was it the European hatred for the USA's love affair with guns that I was feeling?

Of course the film won with a 3.693 score. Personally I've given it a perfect four stars.

Watching the film again at its first afternoon screening on the day it opened on three screens in the Washington, DC area—a region under siege by a rifle-toting terrorist for the last two weeks—I wondered if the nutcase who has killed nine and wounded two innocent victims throughout the metropolitan area might be seated in the sparse audience looking for guidance, or salvation, from Michael Moore's latest (and greatest) muckraking effort. The gunman thankfully wasn't waiting in the parking lot outside the suburban Northern Virginia multiplex. Because of the assassin's trigger-happy grip, outdoor events throughout the vicinity have been cancelled, and residents are under a heightened state of anxiety, enough to keep them away from movie theaters - including the few playing this profoundly unsettling two-hour examination of the terrifying number of Americans shot to death every year and the epidemic of fear spreading throughout our nation. It's hard not to think about the real-life terror going on here in the Nation's Capital when you're at or even contemplating going to a movie, let alone Bowling for Columbine. So, is the coincidence of the murderer amongst us and the arrival of this must-see movie considered a good or bad publicity tie-in. Are there P.R. flacks out there actually confirming the adage that even bad publicity is good? It's a disconcerting state of life imitating art imitating life.

The situation is absurdly comic if you start to consider the over-the-top media frenzy examining every piece of leaked, false, or generally circumspect evidence that is being dug up, packaged, and tossed out on us during the evening and "special" newscasts about the killer in our midst. It's a subject that Moore analyzes closely during his provocative piece. He wryly observes the disheartening connection between several similar stories (starting with the death of six-year-old Kayla Rolland by a classmate in Flint, Michigan, Moore's home town) and within that microcosm showcases how often-prissy and appearance-minded news reporters frenzy on murder without examining the underlying social factors. As for Flint and its environs, the city again bears the brunt of a community shamed and abandoned, a condition exacerbated by the factory pullout by General Motors that was the subject of Roger & Me, Moore's award-winning 1989 landmark commentary and highest-grossing narrative documentary of all time.

Moore crams a lot of disturbing information, satirical analysis, dead-pan sarcasm, and confrontational journalism in the 119 minutes he has our attention. In the aftermath of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, the director set out to examine why this or other high-profile acts of violence (including the Oklahoma City bombing) are such an American "tradition" and inadvertently have such close links to his own neighborhood. The BIG facts alone—which he uses to defrock Charlton Heston, a.k.a. Moses, in a final, surprise interview that reveals the miscomprehension and frailty of the aging NRA celebrity spokesman—are horrifying. In the civilized world (and outside of warfare), the following countries count their annual deaths  by gunfire: Germany (381), France (255), Canada (165), the United Kingdom (68), Australia (65), and Japan (39).

United States (11,127).

Moore (and his viewers) wonder if this highly immoral number is due to the oversupply of weapons or some basic ethnic breakdown in the good ole U.S. of A. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has 30 million people, 7 million guns (a ratio similar to that in this country), yet has less than 1.5% of the total of our gun-induced killings. And many Canadians don't keep their doors locked, a fact that befuddles Moore and sends him scurrying about one neighborhood apologetically proving the statement.

As for Littleton, Colorado, home of the Columbine tragedy, Moore shows us the grainy security-camera footage as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold bring down some of the twelve students, a teacher, and ultimately themselves that day in April 1999. Moore's attempt to connect the area's largest employer and the world's biggest weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, with the violent condition is less than satisfactory, although its sadly coincidental that the day of the Columbine killings was also the largest single-day barrage of American-financed bombs raining down on Kosovo.

That last factoid is brought up a second time in an interview Moore conducts with singer Marilyn Manson, a keenly aware individual who believes himself wrongly accused by many politicians as inspiration for the deadly events in Columbine. Wherein Moore wonders if it wasn't the game of bowling that Harris and Klebold played in the early morning hours of the last day of their lives that could just as easily been the cause.

One of Moore's early amusing moments showcasing the easy availability of guns, occurs when he strolls into the North County Bank & Trust, opens a new account, and takes home a free gift—a brand-new bolt-action rifle. After which Moore, turning to the camera, rhetorically asks "You think it's a little dangerous handing out guns at a bank?"

The whole undertaking is very much an archivist's product reel filled with slices of visual kitsch and counter-pointed commentary, inter-cut with a couple of droll South Park animations (courtesy of co-creator Matt Stone, who grew up in Littleton, a mountain town that was "painfully, painfully, painfully normal") and Moore's semi-insurrectionary episodes. Only one is ultimately (unexpectedly and wondrously) successful, in which Moore, accompanying two Columbine survivors with seventeen-cent K-Mart bullets embedded in their bodies, pigeonholes that retailer's executives into removing all ammunition from the shelves of their stores. Yet, of all the targets that come under Moore's crosshairs, the biggest is the National Rifle Association (of which Moore is a life member), with the sacrilegious image of Charlton "From my cold, dead hands!" Heston unconscionably visiting Denver and Flint just days after national attention has focused on tragedies in their communities.

Finally, you'll be speculating whether this whole shebang is guilty of being in poor taste. If you're Heston or someone who honestly and shamefully believes it's your American right to have a gun or two or ten in every house (and Moore has shown us that there are municipalities that have passed laws requiring them!), Bowling for Columbine will leave you with a distinctly sour taste. Tough noogies. For the rest of us, this disquieting, comic brand of guerrilla filmmaking is two hours of subjective preaching that should be required viewing.

Written and
Directed by:

Michael Moore

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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