How refreshing: a virulent, manipulative, sometimes specious screed that doesn’t come from a right-winger. True, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is only a movie, not something like The O’Reilly Factor or Fox News that takes on the aura of truth because it’s on the tube. Instead, like Moore’s other efforts in this genre — Roger and Me (1989) and The Big One (1997) — Bowling will probably pass as mere entertainment, dismissed as deceptive and dubious. And Moore’s own abrasive persona — scruffier, crasser, and more lumbering than ever — won’t do much to take his case beyond the already converted.
Fortunately, his arguments in Bowling never come into sharp focus. Columbine is most persuasive when it seeks out the truth rather than imposing an agenda. That despite the questions it asks, which are loaded and posed disingenuously. Why did two teenagers shoot 13 people to death at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999? Why do Americans kill each other more often than anyone else in the world?
None of the pat answers satisfies Moore, including the easy accessibility of guns, a state of affairs he demonstrates by opening an account at a Michigan bank and walking out with the rifle promised to every new customer. Instead of offering that as an example of America’s insane infatuation with firearms, he uses it as a jumping-off point for other musings and discoveries.
He learns, for example, that Charlton Heston, firebrand head of the National Rifle Association (of which Moore is also a member) and recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s sufferer, grew up in Moore’s home state of Michigan. So did Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh’s partner in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And Eric Harris, who with schoolmate Dylan Klebold committed the murders at Columbine. Coincidence? Undoubtedly. But the tracing of such ironies, absurdities, grotesque serendipities, and intriguing connections elevates Bowling from mere tract to something akin to poetry, a play of the imagination that generates insights, or at least contemplation and laughter.
Moore has less success when he tracks some of these leads down. His tendency toward condescension takes over when he discusses the feasibility of Gandhian non-violence versus armed militia resistance with Terry Nichols’s demented brother John, or when he chats with brain-fried teenagers about their adventures in bomb making. Yes, these people are crazy and stupid, but that doesn’t make what Moore has to say any smarter.
Likewise his trademark ambushes, in which he tries to corner corporate villains or other culpable fat cats and get them to acknowledge their guilt, here backfire. With two Columbine survivors in tow, Moore visits the corporate office of K-Mart, at one of whose local outlets Harris and Klebold loaded up on bullets before going on their killing spree — but he seems almost disappointed when the K-Mart people capitulate and tell him they’ll end their policy of selling ammunition in their stores. As for the tête-à-tête with Mr. "My Cold Dead Fingers" Heston himself, even though the mentally crumbling actor mutters responses that are racist, reactionary, and nuts, he comes out of the exchange with more dignity than his fulsome accuser.
So it’s no wonder that Moore’s scattershot efforts to account for why Americans shoot each other are less than convincing. It all comes down to fear, he contends near the end, fear of Indians and blacks and all the oppressed Others — a theory he illustrates with a fatuous animated history of America as told by a round of ammunition. More clarity comes from Columbine alumnus and South Park creator Matt Stone, who comments on the atmosphere of persecution and boredom that permeates such halls of suburban learning, and from Marilyn Manson, (blamed by some right-wingers for inspiring the Columbine killers with his devil music), who points out that for the alienated and oppressed such music is a refuge from violence, not its cause.
All commentary stills, however, when Bowling shows the security-monitor tapes of the atrocity itself, the silent work of these demons of the American soul. To his credit, Moore doesn’t pretend to solve the mystery of those images. And thanks to this movie, no one can pretend to ignore them.