Hyperbole and Fear:
The Politics in Bowling for Columbine

Nancy Graham Holm

In May 2002, Bowling for Columbine was the first documentary film to be accepted into the Cannes Film Festival in forty-six years. After the screening, it received a fifteen-minute standing ovation, overwhelming a bewildered and embarrassed Michael Moore, the film's producer. In February 2003, the Writers Guild of America nominated Bowling for Columbine for Best Original Screenplay, the first time in WGA history that a documentary was nominated in this category. In March 2003, Bowling for Columbine won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and Moore made Hollywood history with his acceptance speech that boldly scolded the President of the United States of America. On top of it all, Bowling for Columbine is one of the most popular documentaries in history, a sensational box office hit that is making Michael Moore a rich man from his anti-establishment critique, an irony that escapes no one.

The unusual and rather unmarketable title of the film is from a bowling class at Denver's Columbine High School that serves as a sports and physical education course. On the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris (17) and Dylan Klebold (18) went to their bowling class as usual and bowled with their classmates. Several hours later they were dead after firing 900 bullets, killing 12 students, one teacher and wounding 21 others in the school cafeteria. The two boys had been victims of bullying and this was their revenge. Moore chose this title to emphasize the banality of the crime. An earlier survey of high school students in America revealed that 59% said they could get a handgun, if they wanted one. Why do Americans shoot each other? Moore's answer: "because it's so easy to get a gun!"

Bowling for Columbine is making film history and not because it is a good documentary. Were it to be submitted as a hovedopgave [main assignment] at The Danish School of Journalism, for example, it would probably get an "8" [C] or maybe a generous "9" [B-], if its producers performed well at the examination. As a piece of picture-sound storytelling, it is primitive and unevenly crafted with more than a few technical problems, not the least of which is exceptionally poor audio in several key interviews. The film's meandering length suggests that Moore is not familiar with the concept of "killing your darlings" since he seems to have included just about everybody he talked to as research. Yet in spite of this, the documentary is shallow and unsatisfying journalism because it asks questions it never really answers. So why is it so popular and widely celebrated by even those who know better? The answer, of course, is politics.

Michael Moore has become the mouthpiece for the millions of Americans who hate the status quo, George W. Bush, and the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby with prodigious political influence. These are the same Americans who've made best sellers out of his two books, Downsize This and Stupid White Men. Moore is intelligent and also brilliantly funny. He looks funny, he walks funny, he dresses funny and he says funny things. Humor is his weapon and he uses it to wake up the alienated and resuscitate a liberal agenda. He is not simply anti-American, however. On the contrary, Moore sees himself as a patriot, - a true patriot - loving America while hating its current politics. "I think I'm the majority of Americans," he told The Guardian. "I believe that I'm in the mainstream of America. You're not supposed to see me, I mean someone like me is not supposed to be on television or making films or writing books. So it's just an odd accident that I escaped and somehow I flew in under the radar and came up on the other side." [1]

Downsize This and Stupid White Men go to the core of America's "dysfunctional" society by pointing out the obvious: the super rich are getting richer while average ordinary Americans are slipping backwards with life styles that make them nervous, paranoid and angry. In addition, the gap between the planet's have and the have-not nations is growing under the misguided forces of globalization, protected by the most powerful and expensive military force in world history.

In Bowling for Columbine, Moore is interested in two questions: Why do Americans love guns and protect the right to own weapons? And why, unlike other nationalities that also own guns but do not shoot each other, do Americans use violence to solve problems? Unfortunately, he is far more lucid and analytical in his books than he is in Bowling for Columbine and this is what makes the film disappointing. Moore asks the right questions but to get his answers, you have to look outside his film. Instead of a coherent premise that systematically leads to conclusions, Bowling for Columbine is an elaborate collection of impressions that merely hints at the answers.

Americans are paranoid, especially since September 11, 2001. Aside from international terrorism, however, they are a nation of frightened citizens who live insecure lives. They live in fear and fear combined with access to guns is a dangerous cocktail. Much of Moore's thesis is available on his web site and comes from Barry Glassner's 1999 Book, The Culture of Fear [2]. The problem is that Americans are afraid of the wrong things. Americans think crime is up when statistically it is going down. They think that illegal drug use is up when statistically, that too is going down. Even youth homicides - the very subject of Bowling for Columbine - have declined by 30 % in recent years. Yet Americans continue to build more jails and hold the world's record for incarcerating its citizens. [3]

It's a matter of perception. According to Moore and Glassner, Americans live exceedingly stressful lives but not because of crime, a false issue that politicians exploit in order to win votes. The real issues are downward economic mobility, corporate lay-offs, domestic violence and an unfair distribution of national wealth that makes it impossible to live a decent life, especially on the minimum wage. Thirty to forty million working Americans cannot afford health insurance and nose-dive into poverty if they experience catastrophic illness. Nursing home aides are among the lowest wage earners in the American economy, making it a nightmare to submit a loved one to their care. Racism exacerbates their fear because many white Americans do not trust people whose skin comes in various shades of brown. At the top of the pyramid are irresponsible, ratings-crazed media that feed the public sensational crime stories as a magnet to attract an audience. It is well known that most newsrooms in regional TV markets lead their newscasts with a crime story, if they have one. ("If it bleeds, it leads!") It's no wonder that Americans feel vulnerable. Their love of handguns and the right to own weapons, therefore, is merely the symptom of their vulnerability. "Are we a nation of gun nuts or are we just nuts?" Moore asks. It appears that Americans are nuts, crazy from stress.

Thus Americans own guns, but unlike their Canadian neighbors who also own guns, they use their guns to shoot one another. "Why do we do this?" Moore asks. "The French don't do it, the Germans don't do it and the Canadians don't do it. They're not any less violent as a people. They're humans, they have the same responses as we have." Statistically, an international comparison of homicide rates among males 15 to 24 years of age is startling. Homicides per 100,000 population puts America at 37.2 where Italy is 4.3, Spain is 1.5, Denmark is 1.3, England/Wales is 0.6 and Japan is 0.5 Moore asks: "Why don't they go for a gun and kill at the rate we do?" [4]

Moore asks this question in Bowling for Columbine yet even after 114 minutes, he never quite answers it. He merely hints. Racism and white guilt are hinted at in a rapidly edited segment that tells the history of America through animation. It is also hinted at when Moore takes us to the producer of Cops, one of America's most popular TV programs that regularly shows bare-chested black men being wrestled to the ground by white policemen. The conversation between Moore and the producer however, is weak and altogether too subtle. In another segment, Moore asks Canadians about the security of having a national health care service but leaves the point dangling in the air. Surprisingly, it is rock star, Marilyn Manson who provides one of the more articulate interviews. Manson raises the issue of consumerism and how America's ultra commercial culture is designed to alleviate guilt, fear and other unpleasant feelings. "Just buy this and you'll feel better!" An intelligent insight but after listening, Moore leaves it undeveloped.

The same thing happens with childcare, a vital service for working parents but in America only for those who can afford to pay for it. In one of the most poignant segments of the documentary, this important issue is touched on but never developed. Here Moore introduces us to a welfare mother who, evicted from her home, was forced to live with a relative who owned a handgun. Her son was left virtually unsupervised when she was forced by new welfare-to-work rules to commute 80 miles a day and work 70 hours a week at two different jobs in order to pay her rent and meet her expenses. Her 6 year old son found the gun in the house and took it to school where he shot and killed a first grade classmate, a little girl who was also 6 years old. This is one of the saddest and most sobering moments in the film but its point is far too subtle for those who don't want to see it.

This is what makes Bowling for Columbine disappointing and frustrating even at the moments when it makes you laugh. The journalism is shallow because there is virtually no analysis or interpretation. Instead, Moore bounces around like a pinball machine, documenting again and again how much Americans like guns. We hear glib comments from low-lifers who sell stolen guns as easily as used washing machines, bank tellers who give away rifles to new customers and a man who sleeps with a 44 magnum under his pillow. We meet Charlton Heston, famed movie actor and long-time President of the NRA, who seems naive and uninformed. We hear again and again how easy it is to own a gun, but we never hear about the essential quality-of-life differences between America and other modern industrial nations that offer some measure of security under social democracy. In this way, Bowling for Columbine is preaching to the converted and will never convince the conservatives to alter their views.

Moore's second question is critical yet he merely skates over it: Why do Americans accept violence as a way to solve problems? In Bowling for Columbine, we're introduced to this concept in a collage of historical segments showing American military intervention, edited ironically to Louie Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." Hinted at is America's notion of exceptionalism. This deeply seeded but otherwise unconscious attitude comes under the rubric of manifest destiny that says: America is special and therefore entitled to act differently from other nations. It means if America wants to act as the world's Rambo Cop, using violence to solve problems, it is perfectly acceptable. The war in Iraq happened after his film was completed but documents his premise.

Says Moore: "Let's just go for that gun and that's how we're going to resolve our disputes. The guy who's sitting in the Oval Office... he wants to bomb. We don't need any more inspections, let's just bomb them and we'll find out later if they have the weapons. That's the American way. I don't like that." [5]

Evidently, Moore has a lot of company. At a time when America's political Left is ragged and unorganized with a polyglot of inarticulate and reticent Democrats, Moore and his followers are attempting to revive a liberal agenda. While some critics call the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) "weapons of mass disappearance," Moore goes one step further and says they are "weapons of mass distraction." He thinks Iraq is a way to keep Americans from focusing on the vital domestic issues of their society.

What effect is Bowling for Columbine having on American politics? While it's too soon to say, some things are changing. A highlight of the film is when Moore brings two surviving victims of the Columbine High School massacre to K-Mart to ask the store to stop selling bullets. One boy with a movie star face sits in a wheelchair where he will remain for the rest of his life while Moore asks the public relations manager if he can speak to someone higher up on the administrative ladder. This is one of the best fly-on-the-wall segments in the documentary and we rejoice with Moore and the two boys when K-Mart eventually decides to change its policy about selling bullets.

But what else? Will this popular documentary serve as a catalyst to mobilize the alienated non-voter? Can it be instrumental in reviving a weak Democratic party and its progressive wing that for the last twenty-five years have been bogged down in despair? At this point, the popularity of the film is merely an interesting barometer of feelings. It is astonishing that Hollywood's film establishment awarded such a film with the industry's highest prize but maybe it was a wake-up call to America's politicians: "Don't under-estimate the 50% who didn't vote in 2000 but will in 2004!" And how to explain the fifteen-minute standing ovation in Cannes? Maybe Europeans are so tired of America's exceptionalism, they just couldn't stop applauding.

1 www.alternet.org/story

2 www.bowlingforcolumbine.com

3 Compare statistics for America, South Africa and Cuba, per 100,000 people. America has 732 persons locked up; 403 in South Africa and 297 in Cuba. In the state of California, more tax money is spent on jails than on education. Cf. Pocket World in Figures (2003. London: The Economist Publishing Company, 2003).

4 From an interview, Michael Moore Unplugged. AlterNet.org, November 20, 2002. www.aternet.org/story Statistics are from Violence: A Report from the Attorney General's Office of California.

5 Ibid.

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