Should I Watch..? 'Bowling for Columbine'
What's the big deal?
Bowling For Columbine is a documentary film released in 2002 and was directed, produced, written and featured Michael Moore. The film is an attempt to understand the reasons behind the 1999 Columbine high school shooting and by extension, the problems with gun violence in America at the time. The film is possibly most famous for its interview with then-president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Charlton Heston as well as the considerable controversy generated by the film itself. The film was a critical and commercial hit, becoming the most successful documentary film of all time until Fahrenheit 9/11 was released (also directed by Moore) in 2004. The film also won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Best Documentary Oscar. It also brought international attention to Moore as a film-maker and political activist, roles he continues to fulfil to this day.
What's it about?
After the tragic events at Columbine High School where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and injured many more before turning the guns on themselves, Moore examines what it was that led these two to commit such an atrocity. At the time, it was believed that Harris and Klebold spent the morning bowling and Moore wonders why nobody thought this was responsible. After all, is it any more ridiculous than blaming the likes of Goth rocker Marilyn Manson or computer games?
Moore asserts that America has a long love affair with guns, going back all the way through the country's violent history and reinforced by a media that subtly plants fear into American citizens. He also compares the levels of gun-based violence in the US against other nations and finds that America is considerably more deadly than almost anywhere else on Earth. Finally, the film ends with an interview with the then-leader of the NRA Charlton Heston whose organisation arranged a pro-gun rally nearby not long after the shooting.
Himself, President Of The NRA
Himself, Director Of Communications at Lockheed Martin
Himself, Columbine survivor
Release Date (UK)
15th November, 2002
Best Documentary Feature
What's to like?
Documentaries can often be somewhat sedentary affairs, observing their subject without really interacting with them or their audience. Moore doesn't play that game and Bowling For Columbine is arguably his most explosive documentary ever made, grabbing its audience by the lapels and screaming obvious truths in their face. For non-US viewers, the film states the obvious in such a way that you can't believe it isn't taken more seriously. Of course guns are dangerous and should not be as prolific as they are anywhere but Moore's way of pointing this out is to satirise its targets, often with devastating effect. You might not like the guy but you can't deny he makes a compelling case.
The film's message - that the gun culture in America is partly a result of the climate of fear perpetuated by the mass media and politicians and partly a failure to reconcile America's violent past with today's society - isn't a new one, however. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore merely brings together existing information and sells it to you, repacked and simplified. But it seems that of all the films he's made, this is the one which is closest to his heart. For all the japes and stunts, the film has a stark and serious message behind it and Moore is unashamedly injecting his emotions into the film. He often brings the subject of his films back to his hometown of Flint, Michigan - a town ravaged by economic hardship and ever-increasing levels of crime - and he again does so here, pointedly referring to the NRA rally held in Flint shortly after a nearby school shooting that resulting in the death of a six-year-old girl during his interview with Heston. It's one of many powerful moments in the film that hit you with such force, you get as angry and impassioned as Moore does.
- Contrary to poplar belief, the cartoon that features in the film was not produced or affiliated in any way with Matt Stone or his South Park co-creator Trey Parker, who felt the animated section deliberately mimicked their style. This is the reason behind their negative portrayal of Moore as "a gibbering, overweight, hot-dog-eating buffoon" in their next film Team America: World Police.
- When the film was shown at that year's Cannes Film Festival, it received a 13 minute standing ovation. Such was the film's impact that the jury created a unique 55th anniversary special prize just for the film, which didn't fit into any existing category.
- The film is dedicated to three people, all of whom were killed by guns. John Alberts was a member of Moore's sound mixing crew who committed suicide in 2001, Herbert "Sluggo" Cleaves Jr was the victim of a drive-by shooting and the oldest child of two of Moore's friends and Laura Wilcox was killed in the Nevada County shooting in 2001 and whose death led to the implementation of Laura's Law.
What's not to like?
To say that the film divided opinion in the US is possibly the understatement of the year. The film directly led to Moore being characterised as an extreme liberal activist, unafraid of fighting for his own personal political agenda. Certainly, there is little sense of balance in the film. Heston's interview in particular feels a bit mean-spirited and even staged to some extent. Moore certainly hasn't shied away from his political leanings over the years - remember the speech he gave in 2016 after Trump's election victory? But it's hard to ignore facts when they are presented in such stark terms as they are here. Plus you see Moore handling guns in the film and I'd rather not provoke him!
My only other issue with the film, apart from Moore's grandstanding, is with its marketing. This was promoted as some sort of comedy but the film's anti-gun message has nothing funny about it. Actually, that's wrong - the film isn't anti-gun at all. Moore even shows us his NRA registration at one point. But what the film is trying to do isn't revoke the Second Amendment but merely highlight the very issue of gun violence in the US, something which some Americans don't seem to acknowledge in the film. In the years since, the film has lost none of its potency and I'd argue that it remains an essential watch. If anything, the film is as relevant today as it has always been.
Should I watch it?
Absolutely. This is documentary-making at its absolute best, easily convincing you of its argument and stirring your emotions about a subject close to many people's hearts. Gun control is still a hot topic in the US despite the government shutdown and Trump's ego-boosting border wall. One viewing of Bowling For Columbine will shatter the myths and romanticism of gun ownership forever, instead highlighting the real and practical dangers of something as simple and supposedly safe as going to school in America.
Great For: liberal Americans, Democrats, schools and their pupils, making you think
Not So Great For: Republicans, the NRA, children's birthday parties
What else should I watch?
Moore's campaign against his enemies has been raging since he debuted with Roger & Me, his 1989 polemic against General Motors and its then-CEO Roger Smith's decision to close several GM plants in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. His targets have ranged from the healthcare crisis in the US (Sicko) to the George W. Bush regime (Fahrenheit 9/11) and the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recovery (Capitalism: A Love Story). He has even branched out with non-documentary films, although they still have a deeply satirical edge - Canadian Bacon mocks Canadian-American relations and features a decent cast but apparently isn't that great.
While the debates about gun crime in America continues to rumble on, Moore isn't the only filmmaker to tackle the subject. Gus Van Sant's fictional drama Elephant recreates a typical school day before the routine is cruelly shattered by two school shooters. It is a harrowing and difficult watch, at times almost feeling like a documentary itself and the tension creeps throughout the picture as the horror of what you're witnessing becomes self evident. Another film was actually written and directed by a survivor of Columbine - Andrew Robinson's April Showers is about a school shooting very similar to Columbine and I can only imagine how harrowing it is. Another film, Zero Day, is a Finnish drama which acts as a documentary made by two students preparing for such an atrocity. None of these films are what you call entertaining but they make you think, about the senseless waste and loss of life that could so easily be prevented.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Benjamin Cox