October 18, 2002
Movie review, 'Bowling for Columbine'
By Michael Wilmington
Sometimes the best tool for probing a social malady is humor - which is exactly what Michael Moore does in "Bowling for Columbine."
At the last Cannes Film Festival, "Bowling for Columbine," a shattering and hilarious documentary about gun violence in America, received one of longest standing ovations in the fest's history - almost 20 minutes by my watch count - and that says something about both America and the ways we're perceived abroad.
The news isn't all bad. I don't think the hand Moore got was an outburst of anti-American sentiment. But it was obviously an expression of solidarity with his homespun radicalism, sardonic humor, underlying humanism and, most of all, with his unflinching portrayal of the epidemic of violence in our country - how bad it is and how we got there.
"If you want to tell people the truth," someone once said, "you better make them laugh or they'll kill you." "Bowling for Columbine," like all Moore's film and TV work since "Roger and Me," uses that strategy. It's a fiercely opinionated film. But it's also a fiercely funny one, and the humor is what makes it so effective.
Schlumping along in his customary nebbish outfit of chunky-guy clothes and baseball cap, the fearlessly deadpan Moore keeps mining hilarity from the absurdities and grotesqueries of modern culture: a bank that gives away free rifles with each new account; a tour of the farm of Terry Nichols' wild-eyed older brother, James; and a poolroom chat with a local teen and bomb maker who was second on a local list of terror suspects and grouses that he wasn't No. 1. ("It's an ego thing.")
It's not necessary that you share all Moore's notions to laugh here, or that you agree with his politics (in the classic American populist-radical-leftist vein) to be entertained. But it is necessary to perceive that there is a problem - something "Columbine" definitely helps. What Moore reveals is often appalling. We easily lead the civilized Western world in gun deaths, far surpassing even countries with similar gun laws (such as Canada). Our yearly total at the time of "Columbine's" filming: 11,217, compared with 381 for Germany, 68 for the United Kingdom and 39 for Japan. (Population alone doesn't account for this; the per-capita figures are just as bleak.)
If the facts are largely blood chilling, the analysis is scary as well. We horde guns and shoot to kill, Moore suggests, not out of strength, but out of fear. A history of gun violence and a drumbeat of media-fed anxiety has, in a way, turned our cities into battlegrounds and our suburbs into armed fortresses.
Moore uses the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, where teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed to the max, slaughtered 13 of their schoolmates and injured dozens more, as a constant, deadly reference point. And though he doesn't poke any fun at this tragedy - the film's ability to quickly shift gears between humor, pathos and horror is almost unerring - he does find killing oddities. Before their bloodbath, Harris and Klebold went bowling. These assassins were, on some level, typical American suburban kids: TV-watching rock 'n' roll fans who absorbed the same culture that feeds us all. Where did they - or we - go wrong?
The answers aren't always what you'd expect. Moore indicts the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, of course, zeroing in on their president, actor Charlton Heston, who here plays the role that G.M. chairman Roger Smith played in "Roger and Me": the elusive authority figure stalked by Moore and his camera. (Heston remains more sympathetic and more easily approachable.)
But Moore goes much further. He tries to show how culture feeds everything and how he himself is part of that culture - a former junior member of the NRA (in his Boy Scout days when the Scouts were, Moore says, more a gun safety and education group than a political lobby) who, as a joke, joins up again. He also suggests that more than simple gun availability must be involved. Canada, for example, has comparable gun ownership but only a fraction of the violence. Is it the slant of our news coverage? Something in our history or temper? All these possibilities are explored - with Moore as the unfailingly witty, Malice-in-Wonderland guide.
"Columbine" is Moore's best movie, and one of the most blisteringly effective polemics and documentaries ever. It's unnerving, stimulating, likely to provoke anger and sorrow on both political sides - and, above all, it's extremely funny. But we shouldn't dismiss it as an American picture for just Europeans to love. Moore's our boy, after all, and this is our country. As people love to point out, it's only in America that you could make a movie like "Bowling for Columbine."
4 stars (out of 4)
"Bowling for Columbine"
Directed, written and produced by Michael Moore; photographed by Brian Danitz, Michael McDonough; edited by Kurt Engfehr; sound by Frabcisco Latorre, James Demer; Animation by Harold Moss; music by Jeff Gibbs; co-produced by Engfehr. With Charlton Heston; narrated by Moore. A United Artists/Alliance Atlantis release; opens Friday, Oct. 18. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R (some violent images and language).
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.