As a documentary filmmaker, Robert Greenwald doesn’t have the high media profile of Michael Moore, Errol Morris, or Alex Gibney (or, God help us, Dinesh D’Souza). But ever since 2004, when he made “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” Greenwald has become a vital and dogged investigator whose no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’am approach, with its accent on digging up the profit motive, is reflected in the no-frills thrust of his titles: “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” “Koch Brothers Exposed,” and the eye-opening and influential “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” one of the first exposés to anatomize how the low-cost “benefits” of big-box stores add up to an insidious illusion, since they depress wages.
The title of Greenwald’s new film, “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA,” promises a movie out of the same hardheaded liberal-activist wheelhouse: a look at how money is the secret motivator behind American gun culture. That’s a crucially underreported story — at least, if you compare it to the media’s focus on the gun-control debate, or to the drumbeat of nightly news tragedy that can be linked to the American obsession with firearms. “Making a Killing,” however, turns out to be a bit of a bait and switch. The film offers some basic facts about how profitable the gun industry is — very! — and how much money it uses to influence policy. In 2013, a company like Beretta had $638 million in sales, and it gave $2.2 million to the National Rifle Association. Overall, gun companies from Smith & Wesson to Glock have given $20 million to the NRA, essentially funding the organization, which is why the NRA, before it’s anything else, is a corporate lobbying group. According to “Making a Killing,” the NRA’s public motivation is to protect the rights of gun owners; its private agenda is to maximize gun sales.
Yet once the film has trumpeted this convincing if fairly abstract dynamic, it doesn’t investigate or illustrate it very much. To give one telling example: The expansion of “right to carry” laws was a boon to gun sales, but it’s barely explored or even mentioned in the movie. “Making a Killing” keeps hitting the profit point (it reports the fact that gun-industry executives live in multi-million-dollar homes as if that were a scandal). Yet it takes how influence-peddling operates as a given — which is not what a first-rate documentary would do. Instead, the film mixes its rather generalized approach to the way that greed in the gun industry works with a handful of hard-hitting tales of gun violence: an estranged husband who tried to murder his wife; a 13-year-old who was playing with an unlocked gun and died in an accidental shooting; a look at the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago; a man who committed suicide with a gun he bought on impulse; and the 2012 movie-theater mass shooting in Aurora, Colo.
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Each of these stories, in its way, is devastating, and each illustrates a different aspect of why gun control can save lives. The abusive husband, for instance, had his arsenal taken away after being slapped with a restraining order — but then he purchased a handgun at a gun show, no questions asked. (Message #1: Background checks truly are an impediment to gun violence. Message #2: The gun-show “loophole” is no loophole — it’s a wide-open door.) The story of the accidental shooting allows Greenwald to flash a potent statistic: “More than 40% of gun-owning households with children keep their guns unlocked.” The story of the suicide, committed by a man with a degenerative disease shortly before his wedding, offers a comparable lesson about the importance of mandatory waiting periods: “States with waiting periods had 50% fewer gun suicides.” And when Greenwald reaches the Aurora shooting, he re-stages it like a video game, literally ticking off the number of rounds the shooter used — all to hit home the message that the immense cache of guns and ammunition he had amassed, much of it bought online, represents the easy and limitless access that almost anyone in the U.S. can have to brutal weapons of death.
The trouble with “Making a Killing” is that you can watch all of this and tick off, one by one, the valid points that Greenwald is making, and you can still feel that he’s dancing around his real (dark) subject: the culture of violence in America, and the nearly fetishistic obsession with guns.
It’s been 14 years since Michael Moore directed “Bowling for Columbine,” and that brilliant movie, in addition to making most of the same points that Greenwald does about gun shows, background checks, waiting periods, etc., marshaled a profound argument about why, exactly, Americans seem to be so much more fixated on guns than are the citizens of almost any other country. The recent documentary “Under the Gun,” for all the controversy it has inspired, offered more revelation: It, too, details tragedies of gun violence, but it also sits down with members of the NRA and burrows into their hearts and minds, unraveling the complexity of their cult-like allegiance — and the fear beneath it — to the notion that gun ownership should have no legal limitation whatsoever. That movie, in its undeniably liberal way, humanizes the NRA. In doing so, it shows liberals what they’re really up against and why.
Greenwald does present one startling fact about the NRA: that 75% of its members are in favor of universal background checks. This suggests that the NRA leadership, in collusion with gun manufacturers, is actually betraying the will of its members for the sake of profit. That’s a powerful piece of ammunition in the debate, and if “Making a Killing” had stuck to its title, uncovering how the capitalistic partnership of the gun industry and the NRA actually works (and, of course, how it all meshes with Congress), the movie might have contributed a vital component to the national dialogue on guns.
But this is one case where Greenwald, disappointingly, preaches at the viewer more than he investigates. He provides no shortage of statistics, and by the time you’ve been pelted with a dozen screen messages that say something like “Between 2008-2012, nearly half of Chicago’s homicide victims were under 25 years old,” you may numb out a bit. The trouble isn’t that Greenwald is preaching to the choir; a good documentary can increase the passion of the choir. It’s that he isn’t adding in any meaningful way to the choir’s knowledge. He does a scrupulous job of humanizing an issue that the news itself — the deadly mass shootings, the tales of domestic violence — has already rendered all too human. What’s needed is a way to change the system.