Lifelong NRA member and former award-winning teen marksman Michael Moore goes gunning for guns in “Bowling for Columbine,” a rollicking, incendiary documentary that looks down the barrel of Americans’ love affair with firearms. Keeping the insolvable mystery of trigger-happiness in his sights, from Flint, Mich. to Littleton, Colo. and from Manhattan to Toronto, Moore both targets and indulges in specious reasoning about just what makes so many Yanks so violent. Is Moore objective? Absolutely not. But he has pertinent axes to grind and the sparks fly thanks to Moore’s patented blend of curveball research, expedient juxtaposition, genuine satire and bottomless chutzpah. In its mission to inform, entertain and rile, first doc to compete at Cannes in 46 years lives up to the prestige of the slot. Venture should fan out to lively theatrical biz and a hearty ancillary afterlife.
Pre-credits seg shows Moore — whose strength just may reside in his ever-present baseball cap as Samson’s did in his hair — opening an account at a Michigan bank that rewards new customers with a free gun. “The bank is a licensed firearms dealer,” explains a clerk with matter-of-fact pride, asserting that they have 500 firearms in their vault at all times. “Do you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?” asks Moore. Authentic deadpan example of how guns and money intersect is a perfect intro to the barrage of interviews and creative speculation to follow.
Other countries have the same alleged contributing factors of broken homes, multicultural populations, unemployment, youth exposure to violent films and obnoxious rock lyrics but there’s no comparing 68 gun deaths in the U.K. or 165 gun deaths in Canada to the annual figure of 11,127 in the U.S.
Moore plays fast and semi-loose with the history of overt and covert American military and intelligence intervention over the past 50 years, illustrating with keenly chosen archival and newsreel footage many of the arguments outlined in his latest book “Stupid White Men.” The U.S. has had a hand in coups and assassinations, installing and removing dictators with impunity. This info zips past faster than the targets in a fairgrounds rifle range, but Moore means to suggest that a nation whose citizens tend to settle their domestic differences with bullets is that much more likely to employ undemocratic strong-arm tactics beyond its own borders.
Trying doorknobs at random to verify whether or not Canadians lock their doors, Moore entertainingly questions how come Canada — with 7 million guns for its total of 10 million households — doesn’t suffer from the horrific gun violence of its large neighbor to the south.
Worth the price of admission is a free-standing animated seg in which a chummy talking bullet traces the American knack for shooting first and asking questions later from the pilgrims to the present day.
Twelve students and one teacher died in the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999 — coincidentally the heaviest day of U.S. bombing in Kosovo. Moore visits Lockheed — 5,000 of whose employees live in the region of Littleton — suggesting that if dad goes off to build nuclear missiles every day, his offspring may conclude it’s OK to kill people. Harrowing surveillance camera footage taped during the deadly assault at Columbine, accompanied by recordings of frantic phone calls to police and radio stations, packs a wallop.
Moore takes on the availability of ammunition, the imminent onslaught of “Africanized” killer bees and even the urban legend of razor blades in apples that soured Halloween while building his thesis that the media — particularly television — conspire to stoke a year-round climate of constant fear and unease, convincing ordinary folks that their death or maiming is probably around the corner unless they arm themselves to the gills. This already omnipresent commerce in heebie jeebies was exacerbated in the wake of Sept. 11.
When Moore takes his questions to the top, retailer K-Mart is a gratifying model of corporate responsiveness. American entertainment icons Dick Clark and Charlton Heston fare less well when subjected to Moore’s guerrilla tactics. That said, Heston — who Moore believes lacked sensitivity in addressing rousing NRA gatherings in Colorado and in Michigan shortly after gun-induced tragedies — is as good at conveying his p.o.v. as Moore is.
Scapegoated shock rocker Marilyn Manson expresses himself with lucid candor, as do the majority of Moore’s interviewees. Notable exception is President George W. Bush, who sounds like a refugee from a bad English grammar class.
“South Park” co-creator Matt Stone, who was raised in Littleton, explains that while Columbine was “painfully normal” when he was there, the teachers were destructive in their overbearing message that any kid who wasn’t overachieving in sixth grade “would die poor and lonely.” Stone maintains that many a troubled teen can’t see past the crucible of high school but that time nearly always vindicates the social misfits and punishes the popular kids. Getting that message out might be far more effective than gun control.
Use of source music as ironic punctuation is sharp.
Doc’s title refers to the fact that the two Columbine shooters attended a bowling class the morning of their fatal rampage.