- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

As a documentarian, Michael Moore is still trading on the success of 1989's "Roger & Me," a genuinely funny and moving, if sometimes facile, account of how postindustrial Flint, Mich., dealt with massive General Motors layoffs. Follow-up films such as "Canadian Bacon" were comparative flops.

As a writer, Mr. Moore was roundly panned, by liberals and conservatives alike, for his latest screed, "Stupid White Men." The New Republic's Alan Wolfe wrote of it: "If this book is what passes for a political manifesto, then Tom Paine is truly dead."

Mr. Moore, a talented populist gadfly, is very much alive and full of many unoriginal ideas.

His latest documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," is occasionally about the April 20, 1999, high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two perpetrators who went bowling that morning, killed 12 classmates and a teacher. In addition to chronicling America's proclivity for gun violence, "Bowling for Columbine" is also an impressionistic indictment of American foreign policy over the last 50 years; a blanket condemnation of corporations; a call for a single-payer, national health care system; a critique of welfare-to-work programs; and a rant about air pollution.

None of these arguments is new or particularly relevant to gun violence, of course, and they have been advanced more intelligently in other outlets.

Mr. Moore is onto something interesting, however, when he criticizes the media for contributing to a culture of fear in America, a hyper-edgy milieu where an average TV watcher is assailed by reports of killer African bees, trigger-happy black men and poison-laced Halloween candy.

In the face of all this trivial, media-stoked paranoia, Mr. Moore asserts, it's no wonder there are a quarter-billion guns in the United States.

Other countries, such as Germany, have bloody histories; England has thousands of broken homes; Western Europe watches the same violent movies we do; Japan produces the graphic video games our children play; and Canada has a disproportionate amount of guns.

But only America has such a colossal number of gun-related deaths, more than 11,000 a year.

Only America, Mr. Moore says, tortures its own psyche with unfounded fear-mongering.

His style as a documentarian is often unforgivably cruel: It's not surprising that non-actors seem silly in front of a camera, and much of the fun of "Bowling for Columbine" is at such people's expense.

The mobile and unaffected technique does have its pluses, however. As in "Roger & Me," Mr. Moore captures lots of tellingly candid moments of ordinary people behaving in extraordinarily odd ways.

The film is at its best among the ranks of a Michigan militia group preparing for holy war against tyranny in what they call the spirit of Jefferson. Outfitted in camouflage and M-16s, these burly Michiganders insist they're just cautious average Joes ready to defend themselves.

What are they we so afraid of? Could it be all those gun homicides? The very phenomenon Mr. Moore is decrying?

Add to that the September 11 terrorist attacks which Mr. Moore obliquely and disgracefully justifies as the work of CIA-trained, erstwhile freedom fighters and suddenly the average American gun-owner isn't so easy to lampoon.

Therein lies the central flaw of the film: Far from achieving a comprehensive critique of reactionary American culture, "Bowling for Columbine" deteriorates into a meandering, undisciplined, self-circling vehicle for Mr. Moore's twisted cynicism.

How else to explain the absurd attempt to draw a parallel between the Kosovo conflict and the Columbine school massacre in April 1999? It so happens that the day of the high school massacre coincided with the heaviest bombing campaign in Kosovo. The connection to Columbine is anyone's guess.

Mr. Moore's documentary won't satisfy liberals who want more stringent gun control; he doesn't make that appeal and, indeed, offers very little in the way of solutions. Conservatives, too, will be equally irked by the film's scattershot approach and juvenile analysis of international relations.

Because he glibly tries to prove so much, he ends up proving nothing except his own rude capacity for self-promotion. He's gratuitously shown comforting the crying principal of Buell Elementary School near Flint, where a 6-year-old girl was shot and killed by another first-grader in February 2000.

She turns her back on Mr. Moore's prying camera, yet it rolls on.

Moreover, he shamelessly uses two Columbine victims as props in his televised campaign to force Kmart to stop selling ammunition, as if that would have deterred the two teen-age killers from carrying out a plan they had polished for more than a year.

Finally, the piece de resistance: After a grilling in his own home, Charlton Heston walks away from the shabbily dressed Mr. Moore in polite disgust. As will many viewers of this lively, infuriating documentary film.


TITLE: "Bowling for Columbine"

RATING: R (Profanity, violent images of Columbine shootings and September 11 attacks)

CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes


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