Bowling for Columbine (15)
The title of Michael (TV Nation) Moore’s latest feature documentary comes from the hours before the Columbine High School massacre three years ago, when teenage killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went bowling at 6.30 in the morning. Hours later they wandered through the corridors of their school with a collection of weapons and shot at everything that moved or screamed.
It was an extraordinary, tragic moment in the times of an ordinary town that sent shockwaves through America. Days later movie legend Charlton Heston arrived in town to host a rally for America’s National Rifle Association. “From my cold dead hands” he announces to the cheering crowd as he brandishes a rifle above his head.
Heston, the Columbine shootings and America’s national paranoia, as seen by Moore, form the basis of this rambling dissection of gun lore and gun law in which the shambling figure of Moore, himself a lifelong NRA member, considers what it is that makes the average American a gun-toting neurotic.
Obviously, in the space of two hours, Moore finds no real answer. In truth he doesn’t even come close.
What he does do is catch on camera an array of gun nuts, grieving parents, national hate figures (rocker Marilyn Manson is revealed to be a far more erudite figure than the rabid right-wing guns ‘n’ bible advocates who denounce him) and Columbine shooting victims and stitch together a truly compelling piece of modern reportage.
Key to Moore’s film is the notion that bullets can be bought in supermarkets – hence the moment when two Columbine victims take themselves down to K-Mart to return the bullets lodged in their bodies. It’s a moment worthy of any consumer show of yore – That’s Life, for instance – and one that yields a stunning dividend when K-Mart’s board decides to ban the sale of handgun ammunition. Moore is astounded.
Yet all Bowling for Columbine can really do is trawl through a series of perceived causes for America’s fascination with weaponry. Moore never nails any genuine answer, but instead points at the United States’ violent history, racism, inner city poverty, teen angst and rich versus poor. In Moore’s world have-alls will always put down have-nots. And America will always kick out against the rest of the world. Or shoot at it.
Bowling for Columbine is in no way naïve, but it is sometimes worryingly thin. Moore has adopted – pun not intended – a scattergun approach to his subject and so ultimately fails to concentrate on the main issues. He finds no answers as to why those two teenagers shot their schoolmates, just that they had access to guns and decided, one day, to play a deadly game with them.
As for Heston, Manson and the liberals and others who weave their way through the film, it is Heston who wanders unwittingly into Moore’s sights. His smile slowly fades as he realises Moore is no friendly interviewer, and his actor’s voice is reduced to a mumble as Moore presses home his questions like an American Jeremy Paxman. It’s painful to watch, and Heston soon walks out.
But, no matter how much Moore demolishes Heston’s non-defence of the constitutional right to bear arms, there is an uncomfortable suspicion that all he did was catch out an old man used to getting his own way. And that’s no triumph at all.