Point for point, I agree with just about everything mordant muckraker Michael Moore has to say in his gun violence documentary "Bowling for Columbine," but pardon me if I shoot the messenger (ooh, the horrible pun!) for his propagandist approach to the subject that comes close to crippling his credibility.
Inspired in part by the 1999 school shootings in Colorado that lend the film its title (teenage gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went bowling before school the day they killed 12 classmates and a teacher), this film is a potent and sometimes profound bully-pulpit examination of the extent of our nation's propensity for violence, and a quest for the problem's roots. In the tradition of his General Motors-haranguing sardonic-umentary "Roger and Me," Moore travels the U.S. and Canada interviewing city officials, riding along on training missions with the Michigan militia, and opening an account at a small-town bank where free checking also comes with a free firearm (no fooling).
The man has a talent for giving his interviewees just enough rope to hang themselves, like James Nichols -- the borderline-psychotic brother of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols -- does when he gladly volunteers that "it's an American responsibility to be armed." Soon thereafter he jokingly puts a loaded gun to his head before launching into a conspiracy diatribe that almost has him foaming at the mouth.
But Moore's zealous indignation is scattershot and his methods are often questionable. (Read our confrontational interview with him here.) Following up on an elementary school killing of a 6-year-old girl by a 6-year-old boy in his home town of Flint, Mich., Moore assigns blame not only to the welfare-to-work program that kept the boy's mother away for 12-hour days (while completely ignoring the uncle who left his handgun where the boy could find it) but also to the restaurant where the mother worked, because it participated in the government program. Since the place is part of an "American Bandstand"-themed chain, Moore travels to Los Angeles, hunts down famous shareholder Dick Clark and launches into immitation-"60 Minutes" attack mode -- as if the celebrity has anything to do with the day-to-day operation of the company or its decision to get a fat tax break by hiring welfare moms.
If there's a correlation here to Dick Clark himself, it's a tenuous one at best. But he's high profile, so he gets harassed.
Moore also pays a visit to Chrarlton Heston, who grants him an interview in which the filmmaker shames the actor and National Rifle Association president for showing up at gun-rights rallies in Littleton and Flint immediately following the high-profile killings. Having been told that his interviewer is an NRA member (which he is), Heston is unprepared for the onslaught of hostile questions that Moore had no doubt been preparing for weeks. Deliberately catching the man off guard elicits some shocking quotes (Heston sites "mixed ethnicity" as one of the reasons the U.S. has so much violence), but it's anything but an evenhanded tactic that will win people over to his cause.
When the film sticks to facts, it's both powerful (last year's gun deaths in Germany: 38; in France: 255; Canada: 165; Britain: 68; Japan 39; and in the U.S.: 11,227) and persuasive. Moore sees the big picture -- not the simplistic blame-movies-and-video-games picture -- of America's culture of violence and its roots in our nation's imperialism, racism and if-it-bleeds-it-leads newsgathering (TV murder coverage went up 600 percent in the same period that murders went down 20 percent).
Ironic parallels are drawn (on the same morning as the Columbine shooting, the United States was engaged in its most extensive bombing of the war in Kosovo). Shocking footage is seen (killings and suicides captured on video) and heard (Columbine 911 calls, including one from Harris's father). And history is cited (our nation helped train Osama bin Laden and his army, gave $4 billion to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and has helped overthrow democratically elected governments all over the world).
These facts are all quite damning as contributing factors to the deep-seated problem of violence in America. And of course, Moore's cynical sense of humor helps make all this more palatable. One of the film's highlights is a hilariously jeering brief history of the U.S. presented in cartoon form courtesy of "South Park's" Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It highlights the rounding up of Indians, the Salem witch trials, slavery and the founding of the NRA the same year that the Ku Klux Klan was outlawed.
But as often as not, Moore over-reaches to beat his point to death. At one point he notes that a Lockheed-Martin facility is located in Littleton, and melodramatically narrates that "the rockets are transported in the middle of the night while the children of Columbine are asleep." The man is great at pointing fingers, but he never once offers any suggestions for curbing the epidemic that he portrays in this film.
Moore also manipulates his facts. In one segment he interviews a city official in a mid-sized town who says he has no inner city violence (as if he even has an inner city) and "the biggest problem has been gun possession in the suburbs." Next he travels down the road to a big city, chats man-on-the-street style with any old Joe or Jane walking by -- and acts as if he's comparing apples to apples.
For all its shrewd, piercing sagacity, being so blindly agenda-driven hurts "Bowling for Columbine." If this movie were championing something I disagreed with, I could easily tear it apart for its blatant bias. I can't call it a good movie just because I agree with most of what Moore has to say. But I can say it's a movie every American should see.