Michael Moore is unique. His aggressive documentary style may be off-putting to some, but it’s comforting to know that at least one person is out there putting white-collar thugs on the hot seat.
In Bowling for Columbine, Moore does go after a few white-collar types, but he also spends time exploring why America is such a violent nation. As one promotional ad asks, “are we a country of gun nuts, or just plain nuts?”
Bits and Pieces
R for Violent images and language
Moore interviews people from across the continent on wide-ranging topics, yet somehow the pieces fit together in a documentary about violence in America.
The opening scene shows Moore applying for a bank account in Michigan. He asks the banker for the account where you get a free gun. Indeed, there is a bank that hands out rifles with each new account. After a few minutes, Moore asks the obvious question, “do you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”
Moore includes a clip from a Chris Rock routine advocating a tax on bullets. Every bullet should cost five thousand dollars, says Rock. There would be no innocent bystanders because nobody could afford to waste a bullet. Hot-headed arguments would cool quickly as angry people tried to calculate whether they could afford revenge.
Moore also interviews two Columbine survivors, both with 17-cent KMart bullets still lodged in their bodies. He takes them to KMart headquarters to talk to someone about their policy of selling guns and bullets. For perhaps the first time in his career, Moore wins a concession: KMart agrees to phase out the sale of handgun bullets in 90 days.
Fair Criticism, But...
The effectiveness of Moore’s drive-by style of documentary filmmaking is fairly criticized. Moore approaches Dick Clark sitting in a van, getting ready to go to an appointment. Naturally Clark slams the door in Moore’s face and Clark ends up looking indifferent and uncaring. But Moore can’t honestly expect a rational response from someone who suddenly has a camera thrust in his face.
Or take Moore’s choice of statistics. He recites the number of gun deaths in various countries around the world. Germany, 381. Canada, 165. The United States, 11,147. Later in the film he asks various people to explain why gun death rates are so much higher in the US than elsewhere. But his first numbers are total numbers, not rates. Canada has about one-tenth the population of the U.S., and Germany has less than one-third.
The thing is, he’s right, the rates are much higher in the U.S. Although he gives critics ammunition by using emotionally misleading numbers, his thesis still holds true.
As for Dick Clark, Moore doesn’t capriciously go after him. He makes a valid case that Clark is a wealthy executive, living large by paying some employees less than a living wage. Perhaps Moore oversimplifies, but he does not lie.
Is That Your Final Answer?
Moore seems intent on making the case that America has so much gun violence because we have so many guns. But he discovers a fact that keeps this from being true. Canada has lots of guns, but their gun death rate is much lower.
His easy answer dissolves, and Moore looks for another explanation. Bowling for Columbine’s best guess is that white Americans have a history of fear. A bullet-narrated South Park-style cartoon traces the history of white fear in America. The cartoon is clever but not entirely convincing.
The last sequence of the film has Moore interviewing NRA president Charlton Heston. The last question he gets to ask is the same question that inspired this film. Why is America such a violent place.
Heston doesn’t have a good answer, and neither does Moore, but it’s a question worth asking. Bowling for Columbine is a great national conversation-starter on this important issue.