Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Michael Moore

MPAA Rating: R (for some violent images and language)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 10/11/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

On April 20, 1999, two things happened. President Clinton dropped more bombs on Kosovo than ever, and two boys walked through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing twelve students and one teacher and wounding many others before taking their own lives. I remember the latter event with crystal clarity. I watched it unfold on television and feared such a thing happening again—perhaps even hitting close to home the next time. Life after Columbine in America was one of sorrow and constant alarm. We all asked “why?”  Some of us pointed fingers. A minority of students took it lightly and called in joke threats (one was made to my high school; that was not a fun day). However, no one, really, remembered what happened earlier that day. Michael Moore wonders why that is, and in his new documentary Bowling for Columbine, he starts off by tackling issues of gun violence but slowly but surely happens upon something even larger. His thesis question is why do other countries have similar gun ownership statistics but show exponentially smaller numbers of gun-related deaths? Are guns really the issue, or is America just a violent society?

Moore explores nearly every facet of the issue—and even some things you wouldn’t think of right away (stories about “Africanized killer bees” take on a whole new subtext)—through interviews, archive footage, startling statistics, and his usual “guerilla filmmaking” techniques, in which he makes impromptu visits to unsuspecting corporations or individuals and asks them the last questions they want to hear or are prepared to answer. In his first film Roger & Me, Moore was working with what he had and didn’t end up with any answers because no one would talk to him. Bowling for Columbine offers no answers either, but it’s due mostly in part to the subject matter. There are limitless possibilities presented throughout the film, and many incorrect assumptions are addressed. It must be the violence in music and movies, people say. But all those violent lyrics and images are heard and seen in other countries, and still the gun-related murder rate remains low outside the States. People like shock rocker Marilyn Manson are easy targets for censure, but Manson himself cancelled tour dates immediately after the Columbine massacre. When interviewed, Manson also happens to give one of the most intelligent answers in the film. Moore asks him what he would say to the people involved in Columbine, to which he responds, “I wouldn’t say anything. I would listen.”

Then there’s the flip side of the coin. Moore somehow manages to get an interview with actor and National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston, who either doesn’t know who Moore is or was only prepared for an attack. Heston invites Moore into his home, answers a few obligatory questions (yes, he does have loaded guns in his house for defense, although he admits, he has never been a victim of crime), says something about “ethnic mixing” being part of the violence problem, and finally stands up and leaves when asked why the NRA came to Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan right after a six-year-old boy shot and killed a six-year-old girl. At some point, you begin to wonder—as we all have wondered at one point or another when confronting situations like this—where are the parents? In the Flint case, the boy was staying with his uncle while his mother was being bussed to a rich neighborhood to work two jobs at a local mall—part of Michigan Welfare to Work program. One of the jobs was at a theme restaurant owned by Dick Clark. When Moore tries to ask Clark about the program, he ignores Moore and drives off.

What we see is the difference of reactions to such issues. Some people, like Heston, will only talk, and others, like Clark, will simply ignore it altogether. Then there are people like Moore , who are looking for discussion. That involves both talking and, as Manson points out, listening. Moore is one of our best and most important political satirists. What’s unique here, as compared to Roger & Me and his other documentary The Big One, is that Moore seems to understand from the start that he will get no answers. His past movies were propelled by anger and an attempt to find justice, but the tone of this film is confusion interlaced with a deep melancholy and, as is unfortunately the case so often in times of tragedy, a recognition of sad irony. Moore follows a statement in which James Nichols (brother of Terry Nichols, one of the convicted perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing) says that America is not the kind of country to seek revenge* with a montage of US involvement throughout the world, including the forgotten fact that the CIA trained Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets, and ending with an image of the 9/11 attacks.

Bowling for Columbine is emotionally wrenching, politically incisive, and subversively funny. It is also an important film, not only because of what it’s about but also because of what it represents. Films like this strengthen our opinions and give us a feeling of democracy and freedom of speech at work. Moore ’s politics aren’t for everyone, but that isn’t the issue here. The issue and what’s important is that he’s asking what’s on everyone’s mind and discovering that we’re all just as dumbfounded as the next person.

*Upon revisiting the film and this review, I notice I was mistaken. The statement about the US and revenge was actually spoken by a representative from Lockheed Martin.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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