Fear and Loathing
Michael Moore Meets the Enemy--And He Is Us
If Michael Moore's new documentary, Bowling for Columbine, were just about guns, it would still be an important film. Witnessing the headlines of the last few weeks, a film seeking answers about the plague of gun violence in our country could not be more timely. But Moore's film doesn't stop there, instead using gun violence as a lens through which to view American culture as a whole, and drawing some difficult conclusions about our direction as a people. In so doing, it's not so much a movie as it is a state of the union address, a far-reaching, unflinching examination of America's shortcomings both at home and abroad. It's also a film that dares us to change, to become better people, and to take control of our culture and our government.
Bowling for Columbine uses its namesake tragedy as a starting point to phrase a question: Why does the United States suffer exponentially more gun-related deaths per year than most other industrialized nations? At first, the tougher gun-control laws in Europe and Japan seemingly offer an easy answer. But then, Moore responds, how do you explain Canada, a nation with gun availability comparable to the United States but with only one one-100th of our annual gun deaths? Moore rejects the theory that our pop culture has made us more violent: After all, he argues, Canadian teenagers enjoy the same angry music, the same graphic movies, and the same bloody video games as their American peers. Blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine, Moore argues, makes as much sense as blaming the bowling alley the Columbine shooters attended just before blowing away their classmates.
Instead, Moore attributes our violent tendencies largely to a "culture of fear" cultivated by our government and the corporate-owned reactionary news media. In a hilarious sequence, he cuts together stories from local and national TV news reports urging Americans to find fear in the unlikeliest of places--killer escalators, for instance. He also describes how news coverage of violent crime has multiplied over the last decades--despite marked reductions in actual crimes committed--and how obsessed with ethnicity these news broadcasts are when the suspects happen to be black. This culture of fear, Moore argues, results in a nation of armed xenophobes who live in gated communities and turn their lives into exercises in excessive consumerism.
Moore also draws connections between the militaristic foreign policy of the United States and the violence of its populace. Much of the adult population in Columbine, he finds, works at the nearby Lockheed Martin plant. Given this country's vested corporate interest in arming the world with weapons of mass destruction, Moore asserts, it should not surprise us that our children also take up arms and solve problems with violence instead of negotiation. In an extraordinarily emotional montage, Moore shows a sampling of the many foreign atrocities the United States has backed over the last 50 years in places like Guatemala, Vietnam, and East Timor. We can't blame children, Moore argues, for the illness of their parents.
For contrast, Moore continues the comparison with Canada. He takes us to Toronto, where a sampling of dwellings in an urban neighborhood reveals most doors unlocked and most residents cheerfully willing to welcome strangers with movie cameras into their home. "Thanks for not shooting me!" Moore calls out to a particularly affable urbanite. He also interviews an African-American from Detroit who describes the relief from tension he feels as soon as he crosses the border into Canada, and a cross-sampling of Canadians who don't seem to be afraid of jack squat in their daily lives. It's an anecdotal argument, but it rings true: A people taught to fear others less and respect others more might actually blow each other's heads off with less frequency.
Moore unfolds his complicated arguments skillfully, with his trademark mix of on-camera appearances (a rumpled everyman figure as ever), voice-over narration, and dry humor; even as his film sometimes evokes anger and indignation, it never fails to entertain. To illustrate the availability of guns in the United States, Moore finds a bank that sends new account holders home with shotguns. To emphasize how deeply entrenched issues of race and class are in U.S. history, he offers an outrageous animated sequence that's half South Park and half People's History of the United States. And to show how wrongheaded the National Rifle Association can be, he . . . well, he lets Charlton Heston speak into a microphone. Shot before Heston's much-publicized health problems, the NRA president welcomes Moore into his home and makes several historically ignorant and frankly racist comments. Moore patiently offers Heston opportunities to retract these statements, to no avail.
With Sept. 11 fresh in our minds, a sniper on the loose, and a president eager to launch an unprovoked attack on Iraq, Bowling for Columbine provides invaluable context for such situations. It's a film passionately dedicated to helping build a saner culture. As we watch Moore roll into Kmart headquarters with Columbine survivors in tow and petition the discount giant to stop carrying ammunition at their stores, we get a tiny glimpse of the powerful being held accountable for their actions. As Moore urges us to turn off our televisions, tap into alternative media sources, participate in our government, and, above all, treat each other with more love and respect, we see a man of conviction crafting powerful art at a watershed moment in our history.