What to do with a movie like Bowling For Columbine sixteen years after its initial release?
So much has changed, so much more has happened to the United States as a nation, that Michael Moore’s shlubby shtick seems positively quaint. Oh for the days when a jokey documentary about gun culture would seem necessary and important, but not entirely imperative. At the same time, seeing how little has changed, we can’t call Moore’s cinematic efforts too little, too late--more like too little, too early. Hell, we can’t even look at the standard DVD extras on this new Bowling For Columbine release with the same political naïveté. An excerpt from Moore’s 2002 interview with Charlie Rose? Well, I guess this was at least before Harvey Weinstein became Moore’s producer.
Here’s the quick history on Bowling for Columbine. It was put together by Michael Moore following the terrible 1999 school shooting in Colorado that left thirteen people dead. The documentarian decided to look into what makes America a place where, culturally, guns are not just prevalent amongst the citizenry, but are used more frequently for violence than other comparable nations around the world. Topics range from how guns are sold to dissecting arguments looking for a causality between entertainment, poverty, and other common bugaboos and gun-related deaths. Moore employs some of his trademark truth-to-power techniques to challenge KMart on their policy of selling ammunition and tracks down Charlton Heston to ask him about holding an NRA rally in Flint, MI, following the shooting of a six-year-old girl by one of her fellow kindergarteners. Upon release, Bowling for Columbine was critically celebrated, became a commercial hit, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the next Academy Awards.
Much of Bowling for Columbine still works. Moore is a quality storyteller and, at heart, an entertainer, so his anecdotal explorations almost always have something intriguing at their center. His approach is pretty simple: start with levity--the absurdity if getting guns in banks, or ammo in barber shops, for instance--and let it lead the audience to something more serious, like hard stats and cold facts about U.S. military intervention around the world. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. His news anthology structuring, complete with humorous asides, movie clips, and even original animation, has been copied by many documentarians since. Likewise his tendency to put himself front and center, becoming part of the story itself. That said, the most effective choice here is the one that doesn’t involve Moore at all. The sequence where we watch security footage from Columbine while listening to audio from 9-1-1 calls made that morning is chilling. It was a smart move for the filmmaker to step back and stay out of the way.
With this kind of collage approach, it stands to reason that not all routines would hit the mark. The sidebar with South Park co-creator Matt Stone adds little insight to the question of why teenagers are alienated, and the South Park-like animated history lesson follows (but is not by Stone and Trey Parker, as many believe) is annoyingly simplistic. Then again, Moore himself shows very little insight on camera. While the best parts of Bowling for Columbine are how he knocks down straw men with a montage of juxtaposition, when confronted with people he genuinely disagrees with, but whom could provide him with the opposing point of view, he makes scant effort to empathize or understand. Despite painting himself as a folk hero for the common man, he begins most interactions with said common man under the assumption that he’s an idiot. Just look at how stymied he is when the one Littleton resident shows genuine emotion when discussing Columbine. Moore doesn’t know what to do. He was just there to make the guy an object of ridicule for overreacting in his home security measures.
Which actually brings us to the real problem in evaluating Bowling for Columbine in this day and age: how we feel about Michael Moore. While I would say his skills as a filmmaker are unimpeachable, and within the film’s running time, he gives us no reason to doubt his sincerity, his choice to be the main character of all his movies means we can’t really ignore what he does in them or even outside them. In my view, at least, in more recent years, especially with the advent of social media, Moore has become more self-righteous and self-involved, and his most recent movie, Where to Invade Next, lets the jokes run away with the proceedings. The longer he continues to work his “regular Joe” routine, the less convincing it becomes.
While I have enjoyed several Michael Moore movies since Bowling for Columbine (see my enthusiastic review of Sicko, for instance), I’d posit that you can see the turn from lauded crusader to questionable blowhard beginning here, especially as the movie completely falls apart in the final half hour or so. Bowling for Columbine takes a wrong turn when Moore ambushes Dick Clark to try to unnecessarily connect him to the Flint shootings. And when the prank goes wrong, Moore throws a pity tantrum. He’s so out of joint, you’d think Clark’s van ran over his foot.
Not much that follows lands the way Moore intends. Taking two Columbine victims to Kmart headquarters may have gotten results, but as a tactic, it’s callous towards the regular people just trying to do their jobs whose day the camera crew makes harder. Worse, though, is the sit-down with Charlton Heston, where Moore fails to engage the man in an intellectual conversation. His interview appears designed to make the aging actor lose his cool so that Moore can resort to the cheap shot and mawkish sentimentality that ends the movie. I remember finding it oogey back in 2002, and it remains oogey now. If only Harvey Scissorhands had produced this movie and demanded the back portion been lopped off.
Still, even with those complaints, the final point tally is in Bowling for Columbine’s favor. This time capsule of where we were at the turn of the century is still mostly relevant and worthwhile. Considering that, however, our next question is why now?
I know some have theorized that Criterion and Moore rush released this to capitalize on the February 2018 shooting at the Parkland High School in Florida, but given that the Blu-ray was announced merely a month later, and knowing what it takes to produce a product like this, I find that highly unlikely. But even if that were true, is there a better time to re-engage with the conversation Bowling for Columbine started? If anything, the trouble with this Blu-ray is that they didn’t capitalize on recent tragedies enough. Where are the supplemental features about what has happened since the documentary came out? Most of the extras are from the time of release, including that aforementioned Charlie Rose bit and a truly unwatchable “comedy” segment from Moore’s The Awful Truth television show. The only new supplement, a doc that clocks in at a little over half an hour called “Michael Moore Makes a Movie,” is more of a backslapping exercise celebrating the genius of the production than any kind of treatise on the film’s effectiveness in the real world. I’d rather have seen Bowling for Columbine land as a special edition BD later this year with bonus content that spent some time answering the question of what the movie means now. Is there new insight to be had as to why guns are still so prevalent and why the mass violence increases? What about debunking conspiracy theories regarding crisis actors?
In a weird way, by avoiding any such updating, Bowling for Columbine and its participants come off as yet another irrelevant generation telling us how great it once was with no interest in what’s wrong with today. Which is exactly what the Parkland survivors have been trying to warn us about. Perhaps Moore should have taken the advice Marilyn Manson gives in the documentary: now is the time to stop talking about yourself and start listening again.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.