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Bowling for Columbine   A

United Artists

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Moore
Writer: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Matt Stone, George W. Bush, Dick Clark, John Nichols.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Jesus Christ, Angelo, they gave him a gun!"
--Claude Crumn (Murray Hamilton), 1941
The most troubling thing about these post-9/11 times is America's inability to question its leadership. So cowed have we become by the specter of terrorism, so terrified of the boogeymen lurking in the shadows of the world, that we blindly accept whatever the current administration decides is best. The wisdom or foolishness of its policies is irrelevant. No one has yet been willing to challenge them as they should: to say, "Why are we doing this, and is it the best course?" Michael Moore, however, is a happy exception to the rule, a firebrand rabble-rouser whose folksy demeanor hides a vicious, lacerating wit. His films serve as launching pads of open contempt for business as usual, demanding responsibility from those in charge and making them squirm for the camera if they demur. His politics are unabashedly liberal -- and he's not ashamed to use his films as blatant propaganda -- but his fearless humor ensures that he can entertain as well as preach... and sends his movies straight into the heart of the national debate.

Bowling for Columbine is his best work since 1989's Roger and Me, a rambling, funny, and quietly furious probe into our country's violent tendencies and the asinine way we blame the wrong culprits. His focus is gun violence -- the cowboy culture, the NRA, the staggering number of gun-related murders in our country -- but he uses the opportunity to take to task anyone who insists there's nothing wrong with the American way. As is often the case, he himself serves as narrator and protagonist, leading us through an alternately hysterical and chilling array of confrontations and interviews. Starting in his home state of Michigan, he interviews members of a local militia and talks Second Amendment issues with the brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. From there, he moves to Littleton Colorado, speaking with survivors of the Columbine tragedy, as well as figures such as Marilyn Manson, whose music was once laughably cited as a factor in the massacre. He reminds us of the NRA's ill-conceived Denver rally, just a few days after the Columbine shootings, and takes aim at his favorite target -- large corporations -- that feed our fearfulness for their own profit.

Moore's focus wanders a tad, flashing across subjects and topics with a hummingbird's attention span. But it all stays within the bounds of his chosen topic, and keeps with his chosen persona. His large, baggy frame, topped with an omnipresent baseball cap and scraggy beard, looks deceptively like a lost teddy bear. But there is steel beneath the velvet. His harmless facade hides a confrontational ogre, engineering situations that put his targets in the hot seat. He takes wheelchair-bound Columbine survivors into K-Mart world headquarters, asking them to stop selling bullets. He grills the producer of Cops for its depiction of minorities and repeatedly returns to shattered lives destroyed by gun violence. And he knows how to make it work. His liberal bias and obvious showboating can be infuriating to those who don't share his views, but wherever his hand falls, it's hard to look away.

He also eschews easy answers -- refusing to rest on pat explanations -- and here Bowling for Columbine becomes more than just crude propaganda. For all his left-wing tendencies, Moore is actually a lifetime member of the NRA, and he rejects the notion that simple gun proliferation is the root of all these ills. After all, he notes, Canada has comparable numbers of firearms and they don't have a fraction of the murders we do. Neither is it ethnic diversity, he reasons, nor a violent history, nor our glorification of guns in movies and TV shows. So what is it? Why are we as Americans so caught up in firearm deaths and so fearful of violence from the weapons that we love so much? Moore has his theories (some of which are less plausible than others), but the conclusions are less important to Bowling for Columbine than the search for them. He roves with humor and insight, and his confrontations -- climaxing with a stunning ambush/interview of NRA mouthpiece Charlton Heston -- will get people thinking about more than what a jerk he can be. In these troubled times, we need someone like Michael Moore to shake things up, to focus us on important issues, to provoke us in ways we hadn't expected. Even if the world doesn't see things the way he does, his questions are worth asking. He demands accountability. He demands answers. He has guts. And Bowling for Columbine benefits from his iconoclastic zeal.

Review published 10.15.2002.

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