Bowling for Columbine (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released October 11, 2002:
Documentary filmmaker, political activist and corporate pot-stirrer Michael Moore prefaces his latest film Bowling for Columbine by admitting his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). He even received a marksmanship award as a teenager in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s sprawling and hilarious search for answers among America’s zealous gun culture and alarmingly high number of homicides. It’s the tangents Moore just can’t help but take along the ride that add some of the more fun moments.
He opens a checking account at a Michigan bank that’s offering a gun for new customer accounts. Moore astutely asks an employee, “Do you think it’s a good idea handing out guns in a bank?” Moore travels to Canada to find out what reasons exist that make our cultures so different when it comes to crime. After hearing from citizens about how they don’t lock their doors, Moore decides to go door-to-door and see for himself. Sure enough, he walks into half-a-dozen homes.
Moore is better at pointing the finger than fathoming real answers. He touches media sensationalism, our nation’s bloody history, corporate greed, past military involvement, and an environment of fear being developed by those who profit from such actions. The sobering truth is that there are no easy answers to be debunked. The film’s climax involves an impromptu sit-down with NRA president Charlton Heston. Moore questions the sensitivity of the NRA after it held support rallies days after the school shootings in Littleton and Flint. Heston becomes weary and walks out of the interview after five minutes.
The film demands to be seen. It’s complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. Not only is Bowling for Columbine the most important film of 2002, it’s also one of the best.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was a junior in high school when the horrific massacre at Columbine happened in April of 1999. I remember the shock that washed over the country. I remember the daze and sorrow. I remember students not coming back to school for days, some because they feared that our Ohio school could be the next site of the next tragedy because of how upending the Columbine school shooting had been for the general sense of security. “How could this happen?’ we solemnly asked. I remember exasperated politicians wringing their hands, grasping for solutions and scapegoats alike, and I most remember just the overall gravity of the whole situation, the sense of loss, and the sense that this meant something significant. Flash forward twenty years, and the Columbine school shootings, which snuffed out 15 lives that fateful morning, is now ranked fifth on the list of deadliest school shootings in the United States, having been gut-wrenchingly eclipsed by the 18 at Parkland in 2018, the 22 in Uvalde in 2022, the 28 in Sandy Hook in 2012, and the 33 in Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then, mass shootings and spree killers have become so common that the satirical news website The Onion keeps recycling the same condemning headline with the latest mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (this damning headline has been repeated 22 times in eight years time, and it’s only a matter of months at most before it gets repeated yet again if history is anything).
After each new tragedy, we’ve been inured to the reality of anything of merit being done in the way of reform; we move from “thoughts and prayers” to, “let’s not politicize this now,” to, “you’ll never solve every problem,” and then finally to a litany of social issues that conveniently are the real culprits, and never the guns mind you, of course. It’s easy to be cynical that, in our current day and age, no gun tragedy will ever move politicians to make real changes. After Sandy Hook, the most watered down of reforms, increasing background checks, was met with stonewalling from Republicans and those funded by the formidable National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby. After 60 people were slaughtered during a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the next hopeful reform was eliminating bump stocks. That didn’t happen. The patterns emerge and become their own tragic parody of performative action masquerading as meaningful action.
When people argue, “Well criminals will just ignore the new laws we pass anyway,” I’m dumbfounded by this logic, as if that is reason enough to cancel all attempts at law and governance. The oft-quoted axiom of a “good guy with a gun” being the only real solution to a “bad guy with a gun” is equally nonsensical to me. If that’s the case, then the rising presence of guns would better police these matters, mitigating their deadliness, and that is definitely not the case. The good guys with the guns aren’t working. The challenge is determining who is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. This reflexive thinking never applies to other tragedies: “The only way to battle a bad drunk driver is with a good drunk driver.” It’s maddening for any citizen genuinely seeking common sense gun reform that’s supported by a far majority of voters.
America’s fixation with our gun culture was already a potent issue in 2002 when political muckraker Michael Moore elevated himself to new commercial and critical heights, and it’s only become even more essential to unpacking twenty years later. Moore had restyled documentary filmmaking with his searing and tragic-comic 1989 Roger and Me, his documentation of the fall of the American auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where my mother grew up, and his search for answers with General Motors’ CEO, Roger B. Smith. Moore put himself front and center in his films, the schlubby everyman trying to hold truth to power, though he himself would have a slippery hold on it as well. Moore directed two more features in the 1990s, The Big One and Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film. But Moore catapulted into a new stratosphere of media attention and derision in the George W. Bush era, first with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, which won him his first Oscar and set doc box-office records, and then in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, which obliterated the box-office records Moore had just set and would have likely won him another Oscar but he refused to submit in Documentary and only wanted to submit for Best Picture (Born into Brothels won that year instead, so thanks I guess).
Bowling for Columbine is an aggravating movie by design and through Moore’s tactics. The issue of guns and violence in America has only become more central to American lives. Moore’s thesis is messy because it’s hard to find a single cause for the root of America’s gun violence, ignoring, of course, the sheer number of guns, though he even says Canada has a high guns-per-resident ratio from their culture of hunting but lacks our murder rate. The section on the media sensationalism driving gun sales is potent, as a nation constantly in fear will reach for protection that is abundant supply and access. As the murder rate has gone down over the 1990s and 2000s, the network news’ reporting over violent crime has increased, as well as gun ownership. It’s a brew of paranoia that benefits politicians, media, and especially gun manufacturers. Gun sales soared once Barack Obama swept into office, not because he said he would take people’s guns, but a section sure trumpeted those fears for monetary gain. The extended anecdote on the mother of the youngest school shooter, a six-year-old, is a powerful indictment on welfare-to-work and a system that forces people into unlivable choices. I wish Moore had touched more upon the mental health aspect of the gun violence equation, as the far majority of gun violence are suicides and not homicides. Many were quick to deduce that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were victims of bullying, but millions are victims of bullying and do not shoot up their schools. In a 2017 TED Talk, Dylan Klebold’s mother, Sue, discussed her personal process of coming to terms with her son’s actions and realizing how essential his desire to die was to his infamous actions. When people make irrational, impassioned, split-second decisions, and guns are readily available, then bad things can be made even worse. Moore doesn’t explore this angle, unfortunately. Some of his larger connections can seem very reaching, like when he tries to say that kids knowing their parents work for Lockheed Martin, a military weapons manufacturer, would be less likely to value human life.
But it’s the needless sleight-of-hand tactics with the truth that confound me with Moore, and these inevitably blunt the power of his message and ability to convert thinkers. This habit infuriates and flabbergasts me. Moore has so many good points already at his disposal, so many meaningful data points and heart-tugging anecdotes that he doesn’t need to stretch the truth to convey his message. I’ve since used Bowling for Columbine as an example in teaching credibility gaps and the concept of ethos with public speaking. This is epitomized in the handling of NRA president Charlton Heston. Shortly after the events of Columbine are replayed for us, including frantic 911 calls and security camera footage, Moore cuts to Heston defiantly declaring, “With my cold dead hands,” and informs the viewer that within ten days that the NRA held their annual conference in Denver, despite pleas from local leaders for distance and sensitivity. “Don’t come here? We’re already here,” Heston replies to applause. The problem is that Moore has stitched together two separate Heston speeches to seem as one, including the “From my cold dead hands” intro, which was given an entire year after the Columbine shooting. He also excludes pertinent details like the fact that the meeting in Denver was scheduled a year in advance, the NRA was required by law to notify all four million of its members ten days before a location change, and all other NRA events were canceled except for the meeting required by corporate law. When you look at the parts of Heston’s speech Moore picked from, anyone could follow the same approach and edit the speech to say whatever message they desired. The climax of the movie is Moore sitting down with Heston, but when he peppers him with questions about his speech days after Columbine, and Heston has no idea what he’s talking about, it’s because Moore isn’t playing fair. Then also take into account the aged actor likely going through the Althzeimer’s that caused him to step down from acting and the NRA in 2002. Look, I’m no fan of the NRA, and I personally believe their self-serving actions perform a genuine harm to the country, but this is just self-righteously badgering an ailing old man.
Moore is not the only documentary filmmaker to make use of selective editing, anecdotal evidence extrapolated, and narrative cheats for manipulative emotional purposes, but when you’re being provocative, you’re going to get push back, and when you use deceitful storytelling methods with your facts, you are a disservice to your cause and your message. There’s so much on this topic that Moore can effectively criticize, like the handy media scapegoats, the failings of zero tolerance and school resource officers, the obvious hypocrisy of do-nothing elected officials, the fear-mongering news seeking out consistent sensationalism, a deference to the military industrial complex, and the fact that the rest of the world watches the same movies, listens to the same music, plays the same violent video games, and yet, to paraphrase The Onion, we’re the only country where this happens all the time. Sadly, no place is safe in the U.S. from a possible mass shooting, and yet a good portion of this country will shrug and say that’s just the price we have to pay for living our freedoms. There are so many fallible arguments to poke apart, and that’s why I’m so frustrated with Moore’s misuse of his platform, giving his opponents the ammunition to dismiss his points.
Moore’s career has fallen quite a bit from his meteoric height in 2002 and 2004, last releasing Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 to warn about the lasting dangers of an inactive voting public and Donald Trump as president (it grossed $6.3 million, approximately five percent of the gargantuan $119 million gross of Fahrenheit 9/11). It feels like Moore’s style, once so revolutionary, prankish, and urgent, has now become stale. As I wrote in 2018: “If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete?” It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to lose their edge or passion after 30 years. It’s also not uncommon for the envelope-pushers to become part of an establishment that a younger public starts tuning out for lack of relevance. I don’t know if Moore has a real audience any more.
Re-reading my old 2002 review, I’m sure glad I kept a paper copy of each of my published film reviews for my college newspaper because it was the only surviving copy I could find. I could not find my review for Bowling for Columbine on any of the websites and blogs I’ve used over the years, so in 2022, I literally sat with my twenty-year-old newspaper and retyped my relatively brief review from 2002. Thank you, me, for stubbornly holding onto these yellowing papers. I remember being more taken with the film in 2002, so much so that I would brush aside criticisms from my other friends who made valid points about Moore’s larger thesis (they just “didn’t get it,” I’m sure I incredulously scoffed). My apologies, my put-upon and sensible friends.
In the scheme of Moore’s catalog of films, I still think Roger and Me is his finest work and much of this is because it’s the most personal of his movies, chronicling the decline of his hometown with his special access. It’s the one that feels most essential for him to be the face of the movie. Bowling for Columbine is a messy movie but all Moore’s films are scattershot entertainments in retrospect, each deserving of reflection but also outside verification. As a result, the movies never become more than the sum of their parts and floating ideas and interviews and stunts and his loose thesis statements rarely coalesce into anything definitive, like an Alex Gibney documentary. Moore can be hectoring and disingenuous, especially during his interviews, and most of all aggravatingly short-sighted in his techniques, but he is a documentary industry unto himself and with good reason. Bowling for Columbine is the start of a conversation, with many asides both illuminating and diversionary, and it’s still worth watching twenty years later, as gun violence has only gotten worse. I think it’s likely Moore’s third best film, after 2007’s Sicko, but maybe I’ll change my mind in 2027. Until then, I’m lowering the film grade from an A to a B.
Re-Review Grade: B