Filmmaker Michael Moore loves to pick at the sores of America's self-delusions, and he's really good at it. This wonderfully unsettling gift makes him one of our best truth-tellers, and with his latest documentary, Bowling for Columbine, it's gratifying to note that his harshest cultural critique to date has also become his most commercially successful.
Moore takes on our gun-happy culture, along with race, class, gender, and all the other nouns Americans handle so badly. In his view, the most powerful nation on earth is inhabited by people whose deepening sense of fear has left them feeling powerless. America makes more weapons of mass destruction than any other country andby pure coincidence?has the highest murder rate in the world. Because of violence-obsessed media and government-institutionalized fear-mongering, we are a hair-trigger nation, with lots of triggers to go around.
The film begins with Moore opening an account at a Michigan bank that offers a free gun to every new customer. As a smiling bank employee pages through a catalog of big guns, he's pleasantly oblivious to the preposterous transaction and, once again, it's up to Moore to reveal the irony. Through interviews with militiamen on "patrol," gun-show salesmen, weapons makers, and even the National Rifle Association's chief apologist (Charlton Heston in his well-armed, gated Hollywood home), Moore reminds us that we just don't get it. Guns and other weapons are a principality of evil, and in the hands of fearful people they are destined to be used. Just as cigarettes are the ultimate self-delusion for feeling cool, guns are the accepted lie for feeling secure. In the end both kill, and nothing more.
MOORE'S PHYSICALITY is always the co-star of his films, and here his disheveled girth conveys the common man's unsophisticated incredulityat, for example, the Lockheed Martin spokesman standing in front of an enormous ballistic missile as he comments on the sad events at nearby Columbine High. Predictably, the spokesman sees no connection. But Moore does, and he takes another poke at our ingrained denial that a society that accepts violence on such a large scale can expect no less from its citizens.
And then he visits Canada, a nation that also has lots of guns but only a fraction of the violence and, apparently, almost none of the fear (they keep their doors unlocked, for gosh sakes). The sweetly perplexed Canadians offer no theories about America's sins and obsessions, but they're happy to invite us in to have a beer and talk about it (leaving viewers with an overwhelming urge to pack up their culture envy and immediately move north to sanity).
Moore can be forgiven the brief but heavy-handed montage showing actual killings as well as victims of America's numerous imperialist adventures, particularly since he consistently brings us back to the more personal issues of fear and obsession. Intertwining harrowing video footage of the actual Columbine killers with interviews about the massacre, it turns out that shock-rocker Marilyn Manson makes as much sense as anyone. Moore asks Manson what he would say to the teen-aged Columbine killers, and the singer replies simply, "Nothing. I would listen to them." Mansonwith his painted face a slight distractionspeaks the clearest of truths in a film where most everybody else is lying, mainly to themselves. When you are young, ignored, and powerless in America, sometimes you kill. Because in America, you can.
Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.