Moore’s success may invite more scrutiny, but there’s no doubting his sincerity in calling for reckoning and change in America, or his thoroughness in gathering evidence to support the need for that call.
Furthermore, it’s fair to assume that Bowling for Columbine has defined the documentary form for a large section of the moviegoing population, who are likely unconcerned by its simplification of certain matters, neglect at moments to signal when it is collapsing time, and uneven sparing of its subjects.
It also allows for the free-for-all sequencing that follows, progressing from Moore’s voice-over biographical sketch to his name-dropping of his fellow Michigander Heston, complete with a cut from the rifle-firing thespian to the rifle-firing filmmaker—savagely foreshadowing the film’s final sequence—before alighting on an official’s unintentionally hilarious account of a gun-toting dog, on the way to in-the-field interviews with members of the Michigan Militia and wild-eyed James Nichols, the brother of convicted domestic terrorist Terry Nichols. In both a formal and tonal sense, Moore is establishing a culture in which anything goes, any texture or method belongs.
And we haven’t even gotten to the caustic American historical montages scored to the aforementioned “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the foulmouthed animated section conflating American racism with gun ownership, or the Roger & Me–like petitioning-the-king scene at Kmart’s corporate offices starring two Columbine survivors.
(It is wretchedly likely that this number will have increased by the time this essay goes to press.) In the United States, guns are fired at or near children attending school nine times per year.
Revisiting Moore’s film in light of this appalling legacy, it’s remarkable how spot-on he was in his thesis.In Bowling for Columbine’s tonally assured, self-contained precredits sequence, he is given a rifle on camera simply for opening an account at Michigan’s North Country Bank and Trust.“Well, here’s my first question,” he says to the employee, gun in hand.He dropped out of college to pursue independent journalism, starting a Michigan alt-weekly before serving a short, controversial stint as editor of the lefty investigative magazine Mother Jones.Moore’s on-camera persona not only reflected these bona fides, it also functioned as something of a rebuke to TV-newsmagazine-style dispatches, offering his own sneakers-and-street-smarts profile in place of a suit-and-tie 60 Minutes correspondent.Bush and post-9/11 warmongering, raked in a mind-boggling 2 million worldwide. Some have found the filmmaker’s ambition to bring awareness about his issues to as wide an audience as possible to get in the way of following the norms of traditional journalism.But the fact is, Moore operates at the nexus of journalism, activism, and entertainment, and he merits evaluation from all three angles.The character is based on the real Moore, of course, but the films isolate only those aspects that the topic at hand can utilize, broad strokes in a selective self-portrait.In Bowling for Columbine, it’s that he grew up a precocious marksman in a gun-loving state (“I couldn’t wait to go outside and shoot up the neighborhood,” he says about getting his first toy gun), and he uses footage of himself with firearms as both an admission entitling him to a critical angle on gun ownership and a sight gag.Bowling for Columbine must also be considered on its own genre-blending terms; evaluating it strictly as journalism would be as inadequate as treating it as simple entertainment.Compare the attention given to Moore’s work with the critical reception of that of English filmmaker Adam Curtis, a similarly morally and politically convicted, iconoclastic polemicist whose editorializing methodology is generally given a freer pass.