November 22, 2002

Lock and Unload

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Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is back, with the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize under his belt for his newest documentary –Bowling for Columbine. The film features Moore at his inquisitive and ambulatory best, harking back to Roger & Me style, as he asks the question: why is America so gun crazed?

On one hand, Moore exploits the rootin’ tootin’ shoot-em-up American gun obsession in its full absurdity. In the opening scene, we follow Moore into a bank that gives out free rifles for opening a new account. He doesn’t stop there, plowing the ranks of the NRA and small-town America for all the 2nd amendment extremists.

Still, Moore’s message is unavoidably serious as he explores what he calls the American “culture of fear.” In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, politicians blamed everything from the media to Marilyn Manson. Moore’s purpose is simple and well-defined — to examine why the US has the highest number of firearm deaths of any developed country.

At times, Moore seems to go for the easy answers. Anyone can expect what the Michigan Militia will have to say about gun control. Many of the situations involve turning the cameras on people who are not prepared, at whose expense Moore looks smarter and more poignant.

In one such juxtaposition, Moore interviews an executive at a Lockheed Martin plant in Littleton, Colorado — the site of the school shootings. With a massive, phallic rocket behind him, the executive can’t find the similarity between the students’ homicidal reactions and the US bombing of foreign countries. Moore then displays a veritable slide show of the US’s past foreign policy blunders that have ended in carnage, set to “What a Wonderful World.” The shot is almost too easy for Moore to take.

At the same time, there are some undeniably moving and effective moments in the film. In Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, a 6 year-old committed a deadly school shooting. Moore delves into the explanation: the ridiculous welfare system that kept the boy’s mother away. At the same time, we see a news crew, providing a national feed of the incident, whose anchorman can whine about hairspray before displaying sickeningly fake and unsubstantial sympathy on camera. The effect is chilling.

In another episode, Moore takes two injured Columbine students to Kmart headquarters, both still experiencing medical problems from the 17 cent Kmart bullets in their bodies. They are ignored and chided by PR personnel until they drag the media along. While Kmart does announce a ban on ammunitions sales the next day, watching the events unfold is at once satisfying and frustrating as a viewer.

Moore’s simplicity may be exactly what makes his film so effective. Watching Charlton Heston lead pro-gun rallies in the towns of school shootings lets you safely say that he is a bad man. At the same time, Moore indulgently can’t resist a Heston interview. It’s inclusively distasteful, comic, and honest. Moore uses overdramatic, guerilla tactics to succeed, which makes the point that in this media culture, that may be what it takes. In the end, the film is simultaneously conflicting, triumphant, persuasive, and powerful. Undoubtedly, it is worthwhile.

Archived article by Lauren Sommer