I genuinely can’t remember the last time I reviewed a documentary. I remember covering Being Frank last year, but I’m sure I’ve done more since then; and it’s strange really, considering that I watch so many documentaries in my spare time. The thing about that though is that most of the docs I watch are TV series as opposed to films (my most recent watch was Outcry, highly-recommended viewing, by the way), and I don’t cover TV all that often.
So I thought I’d review an all-time classic documentary today to fill that gap somewhat, and one of my personal favourites, Michael Moore’s chilling, and darkly funny Bowling For Columbine.
Gun violence is never out of the sphere of consciousness, especially in the States, and the biggest takeaway from the film is that nothing has really changed in the 20 years since the Columbine massacre, school shootings are still far too often an occurrence, and the current state of America (best equated to a dumpster that is on fire, with an Orange man in an ill-fitting suit consistently pouring petrol on that fire) being as it is, this film is still somehow depressingly relevant.
For those unaware, here is a brief rundown of the event that inspired this film, rest assured, there are no laughs to be had in the next paragraph, only horror and sadness.
On April 20th, 1999, two high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their high-school in Columbine, Colorado armed with several high-powered firearms and homemade explosives. During that day, they would kill 13 people and injure many more before taking their own lives when their explosives failed to detonate in the way in which they planned.
In the aftermath, many people came forward to offer their reasoning’s behind the actions of these two killers, from sensible arguments such as undiagnosed mental illness (journals and home videos released in the aftermath of the event don’t particularly paint a positive mental picture) and reports of the two being bullying victims to the depressingly predictable response of blaming films or video games (the first Doom was acknowledged as the duos favourite game).
Then, of course, after the theories of motives came the opportunity for political angling, the NRA (National Rifle Association) being as tactful as ever, held a rally in nearby Denver just two weeks after the attacks, despite numerous opportunities to reschedule, and Charlton Heston (more on him later) gave a speech pointing the finger of blame at the media (sound familiar?) just to add insult to injury, all the while, grieving families were outside, protesting the rally.
All of this and more is covered in the film, which takes a comprehensive look at the USA’s relationship the guns in general, as well as addressing the event and its aftermath.
The man behind the film, Michael Moore, is probably just as divisive as the topic of gun control itself. A long-time critic of conservative politics, and in particular George Bush (although Agent Orange himself hasn’t escaped his wrath), Moore’s outspoken style of documentary-making have made him few friends among America’s right-wing.
Still, it’s hard to argue that his films aren’t effective, and they certainly don’t shy away from showing harrowing images just to make their point, the best examples of this being a pair of montages. The first is a series of film excerpts showing instances of extreme gun violence and how normalised it seems set to The Beatles’ ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’. The use of actual footage of gun violence is an extreme choice for a filmmaker to make, but a bold one, and one which swings audience sympathies towards his argument.
Later in the film comes a second montage, one designed to show how America has often been the aggressor in world affairs (this is another point Moore is trying to make throughout the film) including footage of bombings, violent coups, and even, shockingly, first-hand footage of the September 11th attacks, all of this is chillingly juxtaposed with it playing out to the tunes of ‘What a Wonderful World’ in a moment that will send shivers down your spine.
As chilling and effective as this film is, a lot of what you’ll take from the film will depend on your taste, and more importantly, how much of Michael Moore you can stomach.
Personally, although a lot of our opinions align, I do find his general demeanour and presentation to be irritating, and often preachy, sometimes in the ways he accuses his opponents of being; aside from that, his films have a habit of containing wild tangents, and often veer off-course from their message, such as his trip to Lockheed Martin in this film, they represent his desire to be incendiary, yes, but it seems he’s doing it for the sake of it rather than to enhance the message of his film.
As I said in the earlier paragraphs though, this is one of my favourite documentaries, so Moore must be doing something right, even if he does rub me up the wrong way at times. The focus on the massacre, and the ‘culture of fear’ is genuinely some of the most engrossing viewing you’re likely to have, and Moore leaves very few stones unturned in trying to discover why the Columbine massacre happened, and why gun culture is so extreme in the USA.
There are multiple examples of this, and when he hits the target, he hits in a big way. His trip up to Canada to compare the two countries relationships with guns is intriguing, as is his conversation with the surprisingly-eloquent Marilyn Manson, who was another person certain people tried to blame for the event itself. These are the parts of the film in which the message is at its strongest when these key themes are explored, the film is explosive and extraordinary.
But then there are misses in the film too. Early in the film Moore is seen receiving a gun just for opening a bank account, something that later interviews with those present showed to be misleading, which doesn’t particularly paint Moore in a good light when he is trying to make a point about the media misleading the public; and then there’s the infamously uncomfortable interview with Charlton Heston, in which Moore does everything in his power to antagonise a clearly-confused Heston. The former actor was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the time, the knowledge of this makes the segment all the more unnerving.
Like all of Moore’s films, Bowling For Columbine is an acquired taste, on one hand, it’s a harrowing, incredibly effective parable of gun violence, but on the other, it’s an over-bearing example of Moore’s style, bordering on propaganda at times, but it is redeemed by the moments in which it focuses on its message, delivering an intriguing insight into what lead to disaster striking a quiet Colorado town, as well as being an incredibly interesting deconstruction of America in general.