Bowling for Columbine (2002)

A literally scattershot documentary about Americans With Guns, which ranges a little too widely but still comes up with a compelling, even unusual thesis. Michael Moore, still slobbishly centre-stage in his work and sporting trademark enormous jeans and baseball hat, begins the film by opening an account at a bank which promises a free gun to every new client, then pointedly asking whether handing out guns in a bank is a good idea. The literal trigger of the film is the Littleton, Colorado, high school shootings, though even closer to Moore's home is an incident in Flint, Michegan (his hometown, as explored in Roger and Me) when a six-year-old boy fatally shot a classmate with a gun found at his uncle's house while his single parent mom was bussed off on a welfare-to-work scheme that kept her busy making fudge for rich white folks rather than looking after her kids.

Moore invokes the familiar statistics that countries like Japan, the UK and Germany - which have histories as violent as the US, poverty, alienated teens, multiethnic populations, violent movies and rock lyrics and videogames - manage a handful of gun deaths a year as opposed to America's 11,000. But he doesn't simply cite access to guns as the major factor, since he hops across the river from Detroit and finds that Canada, a nation of gun-owning hunters, doesn't have anything like the gun death rate and, as he demonstrates by opening doors at random, has an almost comical shrugging lack of paranoia about home invasion. In his talks with militiamen, NRA guys, media figures, journos, and Charlton Heston, Moore skewers America's climate of fear, fostered throughout its history (as illustrated in a cartoon segment hosted by a talking bullet with shivering white men arming themselves against other groups) and revved up by media reporting of incidents like the school shootings, the petty criminals caught on the show Cops (he briefly imagines a white-collar version, Corporate Cops) and the blatant pumping-up of racial and class antagonisms by a money-grubbing, security-obsessed nation which reaches for the gun as national policy. A horrific juxtaposition finds President Clinton blandly justifying the bombing of Kosovo, including the levelling of schools and hospitals, then 'one hour later', visibly shaken as the news comes in from Littleton.

In talks with South Park's Matt Stone, who went to that high school and plainly identifies with the alienated killers, and Marilyn Manson, who amazingly comes off as the most humane voice in the film (asked what he'd say to the people of Columbine High, he says 'nothing, I'd listen to them'), Moore probes for the mindset of the kids, but he also notes that the community's biggest employer is a firm that makes nuclear weapons, mainstreaming the notion of military force in households - though the film makes no attempt to get close to the real killers or understand the specifics of their act and how it relates to the community (a subject, perhaps, for Joe Berlinger), since its target is America as a whole. Moore maybe overdoes the anguish when he leaves a picture of the shot little girl at Charlton Heston's home after the star has walked out of an interview he gave because Moore said upfront he was a lifelong NRA member (we see the certificate he won for sharpshooting as a teenager), but the death toll forces some sort of reaction.

Shocking and entertaining, which might not be the easiest match and perhaps leaves the film open to all sorts of questions since it is quite blatant about the way it stacks its cards. Proof, however, that the method works comes when Moore takes two injured Littleton teens to the corporate HQ of K-Mart, in an attempt to 'return' the K-Mart bullets lodged in their bodies, which prompts the typical Roger and Me flurry of hapless PRs and security staff but also, unexpectedly (maybe top brass saw R&M?) the corporation's announcement that within 90 days their stores would no longer stock ammunition, which visibly surprises and delights Moore and (more importantly) the kids.

First published in this form here.

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