Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine from 2002 is the biggest-selling documentary in history. In his Internet newsletter (www.michaelmoore.com), Moore tells us that as of August 2003, the film has grossed $22 million in North America and $35 million overseas, and has been in theatrical release for an unprecedented ten months. In addition to the Oscar, Bowling for Columbine received a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. After its release, the documentary has triggered a furious debate in American media and on the Internet, including a campaign for Michael Moore as President of the United States as well as a campaign to revoke Moore's Oscar. The controversy over the film has focused on what is seen to be a manipulative cutting and pasting of footage as well as a number of factual errors or inaccuracies. In addition to this, the film has raised a whole range of issues concerning the ethics and politics of the Moore-style documentary genre.
Moore, born in 1954 in Flint, Michigan, in the rust belt, to an Irish-Catholic working class family, has a long career in alternative journalism with The Michigan Voice and the San Francisco-based magazine Mother Jones. His first film, Roger and Me from 1989, a film in which he repeatedly tries to get an interview with General Motors chairman Roger Smith to question him about the plant closures in Flint, establishes his associative documentary style and his ambush interview techniques, placing himself in the foreground as the shabby, overweight, plain-speaking guy with the trademark baseball cap. After the commercial and critical success of Roger and Me , Moore tried his hand at feature film political satire with Canadian Bacon , starring John Candy. He then moved into television satire with the programmes TV Nation (NBC and Fox) and The Awful Truth (Channel Four/Bravo). The documentary The Big One from 1998 tackles economic inequality in America. His book from 2002, Stupid White Men , is, among other things, a violent attack on the Bush administration. With Bowling for Columbine, and particularly with his Oscar acceptance speech in which, with the whole world as his audience, he openly denounces President Bush and the war against Iraq, he establishes himself as America's most prominent anti-establishment voice. However, unlike another contemporary high profile political crusader, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore has chosen the heartland of American mass media as his battleground, and the guerilla tactics of satirical collage and mock-naive ambush interviews as his highly personalised mode of intervention.
Bowling for Columbine is a textbook example of this.
The rambling narrative of Bowling for Columbine may, at first view, seem incoherent, yet, in keeping with Moore's narrative technique of mixing concrete cases of outrage with more general issues, the film is loosely framed by two linked foci: the general indictment of the National Rifle Association, the number one gun lobbying organisation in America, and the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, when two teenage boys went on a shooting rampage through the school, killing and wounding dozens of their schoolmates before turning their guns on themselves. The rest of the almost two-hour-long film connects with these two foci by association.
In an interview with Rolling Stone , Moore characterises his approach:
The film took so many twists and turns in terms of what I thought it would be or should be that I finally threw caution to the wind. And it came to be something much greater than whatever I was thinking. See, I didn't go to college - I went for a year and dropped out. So I don't really organise my thoughts: Here's the thesis, here's the outline, here's the structure. What happens when you do that in a documentary is you end up filming to fit the outline, as opposed to letting the film sort of decide what the film should be. Everyone knows there's a gun problem. You don't need to waste two hours of your time and eight dollars of your money being told that. You might connect to it, but when you left the theater, you'd just feel despair. I think despair is paralyzing. I don't want people to leave my movies with despair. I want them to leave angry. (pp. 2-3)
"Letting the film sort of decide" brought about the following series of clustered stories: Opening with a satirical "typical day in America" where gun violence and fear reigns, Moore goes on to a sequence of Michigan-based scenes: a bank where he gets a free gun for opening an account, home movies of himself as a gun-loving youngster and card-carrying member of the NRA - which, apparently, he still is - and a series of interviews related to the Oklahoma City bombing, committed by Michigan-based militiamen. He then moves on to the Columbine setting in Colorado, with a series of interviews with, among others, a Lockheed public relations officer, creating a link between the rocket manufacturer and the Columbine tragedy. We then move into a collage of American military interventions - Iran, Vietnam, Chile, Panama, Iraq - accompanied in counterpoint by Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". The next central sequence depicts the high school massacre - including original 911 calls recorded during the shootings - with interviews with people involved, cutting to the NRA convention, with Charlton Heston, in nearby Denver just ten days after the massacre, and rallies protesting against the NRA. The film then moves on to the more general terrain of depicting the American climate of fear and the general debate over the origins of American violence - including an interview with a very sane Marilyn Manson - one of the bogeymen of American middle-class anxieties. A contrastive analysis sets US violence and gun killings against those of other 'civilised' countries, providing the well-known staggering statistical evidence (Canada: 165 gun killings per year, United States 11,127) - followed by South Park's cartoon version of American history, i.e. the arming and 'scaring' of America, including a juxtaposition of the Ku Klux Klan and the NRA. A history of 'scares' follows: Y2K, "Africanised" killer bees and so on, and an interview with Barry Glasser, author of The Culture of Fear , set in South Central Los Angeles, focusing on the demonisation of black males. The scene then moves to Canada, the American Other, providing 'Fun Facts' about the peaceful Canadians who, in spite of the prevalence and accessibility of guns, live with their doors unlocked, in a welfare state with reasonable unemployment benefits and a comprehensive national health care system. The next sequence is yet another indictment of US gun culture, this time embedded in issues of unemployment and forced welfare-to-work programmes, with its focus on the shooting of a six-year-old girl by a six-year-old classmate, near Flint, Michigan.
We then move on to the general issue of the climate of fear of the Bush administration after September 11, with gun sales and burglar alarms skyrocketing, the conclusion (which is really the conclusion of the film as a whole) drawn by Moore being that "A public in fear should not have a lot of guns lying around". Moore then picks up on the Columbine thread, taking two boys crippled by the Columbine shootings to K-Mart, where the bullets were bought, asking K-Mart to stop selling guns and ammunition - and succeeding. The final sequence of the film is Moore's interview with Charlton Heston in his luxurious Beverly Hills mansion. A feeble and bemused Heston is asked to account for the violence of American society, and is confronted with the picture of the six-year-old dead girl from Michigan. The inconclusive interview ends with an irritated Heston walking away. As the credits roll, we are given a sneering rock version of "What a Wonderful World".
The bowling motif, reiterated throughout the movie, takes its point of departure from the information - later refuted - that on the morning of the Columbine massacre the two boys attended their regular bowling class. Ostensibly, Moore uses the innocuous pastime of bowling as a metaphorical counterpoint to the gruesome high school massacre and, by extension, locates the violence of American gun culture as part and parcel of American middle-class conformism, in Littleton, Colorado and elsewhere.
No doubt, Moore's impassioned indictment of American gun culture in Bowling for Columbine has reached and impressed a larger and wider spectrum of audiences in America and abroad than is usual for a documentary of its kind. However, media commentary in America, predictably, has been split largely along the well-known liberal/conservative divide. Daniel Lyons, of the conservative Forbes Magazine , has led the way - not in questioning Moore's larger claims about gun violence in America, but in choosing a nit-picking approach in querying Moore's 'facts'. Apparently, the two shooters skipped their bowling class on the day of the massacre. The Lockheed Martin plant in Littleton makes peaceful space launch vehicles (although, as Lyons forgets to mention, Lockheed Martin as a nationwide company is an arms manufacturer). The bank where, ostensibly, Moore got a gun immediately after opening an account, requires you to have a background check, and normally you would pick up your gun at a gun shop. (However, as the bank manager pointed out in the documentary, the bank itself stores 500 guns for prospective clients.) The independent conservative journalist David T. Hardy, on his website 'Truth About Bowling', amid a host of alternative facts and figures, does make a point worth considering: the film's implicit linking of the Ku Klux Klan and the NRA casts Charlton Heston as a racist by implication. Heston, however, for all his gun-toting rhetoric, has a documented history of civil rights activism, having marched with Martin Luther King in the famous 1963 civil rights demonstration in Washington D.C. Furthermore, he was actively involved in breaking the Hollywood race barrier with Omega Man in 1971, co-starring with the black actress Rosalind Cash.
Most mainstream American media are cautiously sympathetic to Moore, if sceptical of his grandstanding. The US Catholic places Moore in the grand traditions of Old Testament prophets and American muckrakers, tracing backwards from Bowling for Columbine a film history of truth-telling and whistle-blowing that includes The Insider (1999), Silkwood (1983), Serpico (1973), and On the Waterfront (1954).
Curiously, the feminist periodical Off Our Backs is highly critical of Bowling . Moore, Carolyn Gage insists, is 'off target' in his wholesale criticism of US gun culture, in ignoring the link between gun violence (and violence in general) and male patriarchy.
Dissent , the prominent left-wing journal, has fielded a principled debate on the political propriety of Bowling for Columbine and the relevance and efficacy of Moore's documentary interventionism in general. Kevin Mattson (in 'The Perils of Michael Moore') characterises Moore's stance as 'Anti-Politics' - he is cynical and disillusioned about the entire spectrum of American politics, including Democrats and Republicans alike. Moore is the lone fighter with "no political solutions or realistic tactics for long-term change"(p. 79) His "merging of political criticism and entertainment"(p. 75) leaves us with "decontextualised images"(p. 78) of complex issues. Mattson compares Moore unfavourably with Edward R. Murrow, the famous crusading CBS journalist of the 1950s and '60s, who was instrumental in exposing the anti-Communist witch hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
The Summer 2003 issue of Dissent brings a number of rebuttals to Mattson's criticism. The American Left, it is argued, "is going to have to get its hands dirty in the world of pop and commercial culture" (p. 108), if it is to have any presence in American politics. This is an echo of media critic Tood Gitlin in the American Prospect (February 2003), who deplores "the lack of lefty bigmouths to penetrate the thicket of right-wing commentary on the airwaves".
Bowling for Columbine and its history of reception - which is still ongoing - is a fascinating case of the interfacing of contemporary American media and politics. It illuminates both the perils and the potential of political interventionist strategies in a media-saturated society in which film, network television and the Internet interact. Moore wants his audience to "leave angry" after having seen Bowling for Columbine, and certainly the snowballing effect of Bowling for Columbine, catapulted by Moore's own publicity stunt at the Oscars, and backed up by the film's sales figures, appears overwhelming. The depth and durability of the anger presumably generated within those millions of viewers, however, is questionable. There is perhaps a point to the criticism levelled against Moore, that in his mind-blowing indictment of the American 'society of fear' he enlists himself, however well-intentioned and well-documented Bowling for Columbine may be, in that genre of 'scare panics' which he himself criticises.
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Arthur, Paul, ' Essay Questions from Alain Resnais to Michael Moore', Film Comment ; Jan/Feb 2003 ,Vol. 39 Issue 1, p. 58, 5 pp.
Cowie, Jefferson and Early, Steve, ' In Defense of Michael Moore', Dissent ; Summer 2003, Vol. 50 Issue 3, p. 107, 3 pp.
Forbes Magazine ,' Bowl-o-Drama', Dec. 9, 2002, Vol. 170 Issue 12, p. 59, 1/3p
Gage, Carolyn,' Bowling for Columbine: Michael Moore Off-Target'. Off Our Backs ; Jan/Feb 2003, Vol. 33 Issue 1/2, p. 51, 4 pp.
Lofton, John ,'Bowling for Columbine Throws One Too Many Gutterballs'. Human Events ; March 2, 2003, Vol. 59 Issue 5, p. 32, 1 pp.
Mattson, Kevin,' The Perils of Michael Moore'. Dissent ; Spring 2003, Vol. 50 Issue 2, p. 75, 6 pp.
McCormick, Patrick,' Blessed are the Muckrakers'. U.S. Catholic ; March 2003, Vol. 68 Issue 3, p. 46, 3 pp.
New Republic , 'Dishonest White Man', July 4, 2003, Vol. 228 Issue 13, p. 8, 3/5p
Rolling Stone , Interview with Michael Moore, Nov. 14, 2002. Issue 909, p. 36, 2 pp.
Sharrett, Christopher and Luhr, William,'Bowling for Columbine', Cineaste ; Spring 2003, Vol. 28, Issue 2, p. 36, 3 pp.
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