Bowling for Columbine

By Finn, Patrick | Film & History, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Bowling for Columbine


Finn, Patrick, Film & History


Michael Moore has made a career out of doing three things well: sticking to his message, making that message personal, and promoting the area where he grew up. His latest film, Bowling for Columbine is no exception. The movie, which is now the most commercially successful documentary of all time, looks at the American gun debate through the lens of a number of recent tragedies involving gun deaths. The double frame story examines the April 20, 1999 shootings at Columbine High School by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the continuing saga of socioeconomic strife in and around Flint, Michigan.

Bowling for Columbine is an engaging film that provides a lot of interesting information--some compelling, some less so. Viewer reactions to the film seem to fall into two categories: one sees more left wing claptrap from the filmmaker that brought us Roger and Me (the story of the collapse of Flint as General Motors downsized its operations); the other witnesses a scathing indictment of a gun-loving, fear ridden society that is a menace to itself and its neighbours.

These distinctions neatly divide across lines already established in the gun debate between conservative, pro-gun lobbyists and liberal anti-gun protestors. Will this film meaningfully cut across that divide? A number of popular critics have suggested the obvious: that this film will only be seen by old lefties and therefore merely preaches to the converted. I am not certain these types of critiques are accurate.

No doubt very few NRA members will see this film. Still, if only the center-left of the US polis sees the movie there is plenty of room for discussion. The reason? Democrats have recently rushed towards guns because of powerful political lobbying. It is just this type of change that sees Paul Begala, the ex-Clinton staffer and Democratic co-host of CNN's Crossfire, repeatedly showing photos on-air of himself and his friends with guns. With neither side of the aisle taking up the debate, Moore does a service by presenting a different viewpoint.

The film begins with a black and white NRA promo-clip. Using a mixture of stock footage, cartoons, montages, and interviews, Moore creates a film that is both frightening and entertaining. The film has its sober moments, as when Moore comforts the Buell Elementary school principle who held six-year-old Kayla Rolland in her arms as that child lay dying (from a gun shot wound inflicted by another six-year-old). There are also moments of hilarity, such as the cartoon summary of American history.

In the cases of both the Buell shooting and the Columbine incident, Moore focuses on the involvement of the NRA--a group that visited both areas immediately following the shootings in order to hold pro-gun rallies (over the protest of local community groups), and one that the film implies has direct ties to the Klu Klux Klan. As the high-profile leader of the NRA, Charlton Heston comes in for particularly heavy criticism. Early in the film--after a gruesome depiction of the Columbine events--the camera cuts to Heston bellowing "from my cold dead hands," while brandishing a rifle. It is an effective shot. Those who love guns can still rally to this potent dramatic voice, while those in opposition find one more reason to dislike Heston.

At the film's climax, Moore visits Heston at home, able to set up an interview, at least in part because Moore himself is a member of the NRA. The latter fact is introduced early in the film and is another example of Moore's uncanny ability to assume the role of American everyman. Moore was not just a member, but a champion marksman--then as now, we are led to believe. …

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