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BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (director/writer: Michael Moore; cinematographers: Brian Danitz/Michael McDonough; editor: Kurt Engfehr; music: Jeff Gibbs; cast: Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Dick Clark, Arthur Busch, Marilyn Manson, Matt Stone, Chris Rock; Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Michael Moore/Kathleen Glynn/Michael Donovan; UA; 2002)
“Michael Moore’s latest documentary about America’s thirst for violence is his best film yet…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Moore’s latest documentary about America’s thirst for violence is his best film yet. It’s meant to get one’s goat as he asks the simple question: Why are there so many murders in America and not in the rest of the world? I don’t care if he’s pushy or obnoxious at times, and might be on some ego trip and be an exhibitionist. But those whom he rails against deserved to be challenged and exposed for what they are advocating for America, and his sarcastic wit and in-your-face editorializing only makes for a macabre sort of entertainment and should give reasonable people some chills going down their spine as his camera tracks down many an S.O.B.–including corporate bigwigs with calculated malevolent welfare-for-work programs and celebs like the cold-fish Dick Clark and the idiotic Charleton Heston. Moore makes no claim that he’s an objective reporter doing a piece of investigative journalism, as he comes from a well-pronounced editorial view which is unfortunately not always well-thought out (an example about wasting so much time over Canadians not locking their doors being equated with why there’s so little crime there, is sheer nonsense). But, nevertheless, “Bowling” effectively screams out thoughts that haven’t been heard too often in the media or on talk radio or from public leaders after all the political fallout from the aftermath of Columbine. He’s provocative, and by being so free wheeling he gets to points others reporting about the Columbine tragedy never got to because they either don’t want to or are afraid of ruffling feathers or are more interested in knee-jerk simplistic responses of blaming the uncensored entertainment industry for the violence.

Moore tells us that in the upper-middle-class mostly white Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado, whose biggest employer is the world’s largest weapons manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, that two social outcasts, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed their fellow 12 students and 1 teacher and seriously wounded others at Columbine High School for apparently no discernible reason. They started the day bowling at 6 a.m. on April 20, 1999, just hours before they began their killing spree that ended in their suicides. Moore facetiously asks whether we should blame bowling for what happened, as it seems on that same day President Clinton dropped more bombs on Kosovo than at any other time (never mind the result was a peaceful solution, Moore is never one to let the truth get in the way of making a point). Moore asks why not blame Clinton for the day’s violence! He gives us a history lesson by pointing out that America has a long history of acting with violence and interfering with other countries to exert America’s will over them, as he goes through a long list of America’s misdeeds leading up to America’s support to the tune of 3 billion dollars to Osama bin Laden for fighting the Soviets. His gratitude for our help was to kill 3,000 Americans.

All the usual silly arguments of why this tragedy occurred are proposed by a variety of self-important politicians and greedy corporate leaders, as they want to blame it on those it scapegoats in the entertainment and musical industry. As a result of all the scrutiny by politicians looking for a quick cosmetic fix, many schools have now become more conformist than ever as they adopt stricter rules advocating ‘zero tolerance’ policies. Moore also shows all the violence just couldn’t be because of gun ownership, as he points out Canadians have on average almost as many guns as Americans and they had only 160 murder victims that year while in America the total was 11,127. The comedian Chris Rock suggests that the problem is because the bullets are so cheap and he suggests they should cost $5,000 per bullet–which is certainly a practical solution, jokes aside, in perhaps stopping the abundance of murders in the inner city.

When Moore goes back to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, in a state he refers to as, “a gun lover’s paradise,” he discusses with the rational prosecutor there, Arthur Busch, who is trying to hold back the fervor of emotions calling for the blood of a black 6 year old boy who murdered a sweet innocent white girl in his classroom. The student brought the gun from home when he was staying with a relative because his mom had to work to pay off her welfare due to a new program to get people off the welfare rolls. She worked for a Dick Clark franchise restaurant, a place that gets tax breaks for hiring welfare recipients and exploits the workers with poor wages they can’t live on. Moore puts his fingers here on one of the real problems why there’s so much crime in America–it’s the inequities in the capitalist system, something few critics care to admit. This was Fritz Lang’s theme for Germany’s crime problems after WW1 when he made the classic “M.” Taking a parent away from her child even if it’s to get work just creates another problem, as this solution hailed by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans probably contributes more to crime in the streets than all the other reasons presented. If he stayed on track with this way of searching for the truth instead of going back to his debatable claim that America is engulfed by a ‘climate of fear,’ he would have hit the target he was after more often.

I must confess that I got a strange sense of feeling good about watching Charlton Heston squirm (notwithstanding his recent announcement he suffers from Alzheimer’s and the unfairness of kicking a man when he’s down). The NRA spokesman and its chief buffoon gets his comeuppance after being interviewed in his palatial Beverly Hills estate by the unrelenting Moore, a fellow cardholding member in the NRA. The arrogant and decrepit Heston, held NRA rallies in Denver 10 days after the massacre and soon after the Flint murder (one can’t blame his disease for that kind of insensitivity). He’s on film saying the inflammatory unapologetic words “From my cold dead hands” while holding up a rifle, as there’s no concern about the public’s safety as all he cares about is that every American has the right without any interference from the government to own a gun. When asked the film’s theme question comparing a relatively crime-free Canada with America, he blames America’s problems on too much mixed ethnicity. This touches on the theme Moore was trying to exploit, of white America being so heavily armed because they fear blacks.

Moore’s film is laced with an acerbic black humor while it’s forceful in presenting its views, as it puts some of these arrogant defenders of all the gun craziness that currently prevails on notice that they’re the ones who are nuts and not the ones who are challenging them. It doesn’t quite matter to me that sometimes Moore misses the target by shooting all over the map, as when he tries to confront small fries instead of the real biggies and thereby looks like a bully. Examples of his misfires would be when he goes after an LA policeman with the ridiculous notion that he should be arresting uncharged polluters while he’s on duty in South Central instead of looking for street crime, or when he’s playing unnecessary mind-games and mugging it up for the camera with a working stiff bank official where he opens an account and gets a free gun without any check on him. During those scenes it looks as if the filmmaker has lost track of his target and is just trying to shoot up the place with views he might not be knowledgeable enough about to follow through on or ones he really believes himself. But he recovers, and is able to connect the dots by making his case that America is irrational in handling its crime problems. Moore points out after interviewing some Canadians who view Americans as reacting without thinking–that Americans want only to resolve everything by fighting. Moore believes America needs a demon around to keep the arms manufacturer’s profit levels up and the Establishment in power, and that the American government will invent this demon if he’s not there in order to feel good about themselves and cover up their dark sides which they can’t see as readily as the rest of the world can.

In Cannes, the jury awarded “Bowling” a special 55th anniversary prize. This would indicate how much Europeans liked this film and how true they thought the violent picture painted of Americans was.

“Bowling for Columbine” is a troubling documentary by a troublesome puckish character, and the film should not be rated by what you might think of the filmmaker or how the film lags at times because of its weak structure or of Moore’s shameless and self-righteous contempt for those who oppose him or by his exploitation scenes with the shooting victims at Columbine or in his one-man showboating crusade for gun control or in his implication for America’s penchant for violence being that ‘it is only fear itself we have to fear (I think I heard that one before)’, but it should be on whether or not you think the filmmaker hit on some sore spots that might lead to further truths about why America is such a bloodthirsty country. Even though the answers are not given by this film, the path for discovering the truth about America’s murder problem is well-paved with good intentions. It’s the best documentary I’ve seen all year. The film’s value remains in the pertinent questions it poses and its overwhelming argument in favor of gun control, and the wonderment presented about why America hasn’t come to its senses long ago and settled its gun problem. I’m also wondering about that, as is most of the democratic world.

REVIEWED ON 12/24/2002 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”