Michael Moore, purveyor of such stirring works as Roger and Me and TV Nation, does it again giving America a hard dose of reality with his new film Bowling for Columbine. This is Mr. Moore’s investigation into America’s obsession with guns and violence.
His impetus for doing this project was the tragic shooting that occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in the spring of 1999. Two young boys, alienated by their peers and fed a steady diet of television and media violence, entered their school armed with shotguns and other weapons. They were determined to make others suffer as they felt they had suffered, killing several students and injuring several more before taking their own lives. Mr. Moore takes his reason for doing this film, and the film’s name itself, from this unique American tragedy.
Americans are killing each other at an outrageous, epidemic pace. Bowling for Columbine explores all aspects of American violence and our love affair with the gun. This is a documentary of the most frightening kind. Mr. Moore takes us into the ranks of a Wisconsin militia and uncovers the paranoia and destructive insecurity therein. Men dressed in full battle camouflage trudge through the frozen Mid-west taking target practice with semi-automatic weapons and preparing for the invisible boogiemen they’re positive are lurking just beyond the woods.
While I wouldn’t call these men educated, they have at least graduated high school and can hold down full time jobs. They talk about owning and carrying guns as their god-given right, referring several times to the second amendment — the right to bear arms. In fact, this is a pervasive theme throughout the film. All these people confuse the privilege of owning and operating firearms with the inexplicable right to do so.
Men are not the only victims of this delusion. Mr. Moore speaks to women in this encampment, too, who voice the need to protect themselves with guns. Not pistols, mind you, but semi-automatic assault weapons capable of discharging hundreds of rounds per second. The irony is not lost on us that while one woman describes her fear and the need to protect her family from invisible monsters, her two-year-old daughter plays child-like with a rifle twice her size. He doesn’t set out to portray these people as jingoistic slobs, he just lets them talk and they do it themselves.
Lest you think this film is a dry, uptight representation of this subject, Mr. Moore infuses much humor and tongue-in-cheek commentary to lighten the somewhat heavy subject matter. One of the most hilarious and yet hard-hitting segments is a three-minute cartoon written by Mr. Moore that describes the history of America. Narrated by a singing, dancing bullet, the animated short is an encapsulation of America’s history-born out of fear and continually controlled by it. The Puritans left their homes with fear of persecution and founded a country with fear of retribution. The short takes us through the massacre of the Native Americans to slavery, racism, and the eventual paranoid reality of segregated suburban communities. It is as concise a history as I’ve ever seen and not something they teach in school. It will make you think, and rightly so. All of our actions are fear based and until we eradicate that irrational and dangerous notion that someone is always out to get us, we will never be free.
Fear is a controlling factor in our society and this film shows that it’s an almost exclusively American proclivity. Mr. Moore takes us to Windsor, Canada, the neighbor of Detroit, and explores their beliefs about violence and fear. While Detroit, at the time, had a murder rate of close to 400 people a year, Windsor was knocking on the door of four. Most of the residents of Windsor that were interviewed couldn’t even remember the last murder that took place. In fact, the police chief sited the last murder to be nearly a year before, and that, he said, was committed by a Detroit resident who had crossed the river.
Mr. Moore juxtaposes images of American gated communities and high-tech security with shots of friendly Canadians who not only don’t have security alarms, but who don’t even lock their door. As an experiment, he actually goes to a fairly urban part of town and starts opening doors to people’s houses. People there don’t lock their doors when they’re home. He walked in on several people who where not only unperturbed by this intrusion, but were downright friendly about it. Try that in Detroit.
Why was this? Why were Canadians so fearless in there daily lives? The answer seems to lie in the media. Clips of Canadian news programs reveal not one hint of violence. Their news was focused on — surprise — news. They talked about events happening on a world stage. They talked about cultural events and social concerns — not one whiff of murder or destructiveness.
By contrast, the clips of American news shows were littered with violence. The top story is almost always involving death or brutality. Bowling for Columbine is peppered throughout with interesting and disturbing statistics. The most surprising was this; while over the past twenty years as the murder rate in America has declined by over twenty percent, the coverage of it has risen by six-hundred percent. Less people are being killed than ever before, but the media doesn’t reflect that. To the average viewer, it appears that murder is at an all time high.
Why does the media perpetuate this horrible idea? Well in a word, because it sells. Murder sells and the media has to survive so in the desperate search for ratings they breed fear and paranoia. Murder isn’t the only thing the media memorializes. In their attempt to keep us tuned in, they prey on all our fears of death. If it’s not about murders and rapes, it’s about killer bees or super viruses. The media even tries to make us afraid of the weather-killer storms, killer floods, killer winds. This only makes us a society filled with fear. Living in fear of everything and feeling helpless and inadequate we turn to extreme measures to protect ourselves.
The media is playing on our fears to make a buck. It is infuriating and dangerous.
These dangerous mindsets permeate into the heart of our society. This is a country run by rich old white men. Why is it the group with the most power, the most money, and the most freedom has the biggest fears? It’s the irrational fear of losing it all. If you’re always afraid you are going to lose all your “stuff” I guess you’ll protect it however you can. This is made poignantly clear when Michael Moore finally tracks down Charleton Heston. Mr. Moore has been trying to talk to Mr. Heston the entire film and when he finally encounters him, it’s a sad reality about the people who are running this country. Mr. Heston is the head of the N.R.A., the National Rifle Association — a huge lobby in Washington, and after the tragic deaths at Columbine High School he insisted on having an N.R.A. rally in Denver that same week.
Why, Mr. Moore wanted to know, did Mr. Heston continue such an insensitive crusade? Mr. Heston replied that it was his right to bear arms and no one was going to stop him. He never apologized for his actions nor was he able to see how, given his position, he could have actually helped by condemning the actions of those young boys. As they spoke, it became increasingly obvious that Mr. Heston is a confused, pathetic, scared old man who is close to the edge of his own sanity. While sitting in his palatial hilltop home above Hollywood behind secured gates and high walls, Mr. Heston said that he had several guns in the house and that most of them were, surprisingly, loaded — “just in case.”
When Mr. Moore spoke about children being killed and hinted that Mr. Heston had a responsibility to help turn over some of our too-liberal gun laws, he became disoriented spitting incoherent and racist platitudes, rudely and abruptly ending the interview. His only quotable line was “it was good enough for those old white guys who founded this country and it is good enough for me.”
That’s the problem. As Mr. Moore left his house, he placed a picture of a six-year-old white girl who had been shot and killed by a classmate who found his uncle’s gun and brought it to school. The shot of this sweet little girl propped up against the barricaded front door of Charleton Heston is one of the most touching and moving moments of this film.
I loved this film. I think every person in America should see this film. I think parents should see it with their children and discuss it later. While everyone may not agree with Mr. Moore’s hard-hitting, no apologies type of filmmaking, the subject matter is one that must be explored.
America has a murder rate that is larger than all industrialized countries put together. Over 11,000 Americans are killed each year, and as the population rises, this statistic will inevitably rise as well. This film is educational and necessary for so many who don’t know or don’t think that there is a problem. We need to be shaken out of our complacency, and a no-holds-barred reality check like Bowling for Columbine is just the medicine this ailing country needs.