Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

16Aug11

Directed by Michael Moore. Rating: 15. Running time: 120 minutes.

So in England when you open a bank account, your incentive is normally a free gift like a USB memory stick, or an overdraft, or a railcard. It turns out Michigan is a little different. There, your free gift is a fucking gun.

It gets worse. Kmart, the American equivalent of Tesco, until very recently sold both rifles and bullets over the counter, just incase you wanted to stock up on arms and ammunition at the same time you buy your daily newspaper and veg for tonight’s dinner.

Is it any wonder a society this gun-crazy has one of the highest homicide rates in the world? Well, Michael Moore’s answer isn’t that simplistic. Bowling for Columbine wants to probe much deeper than that, and it kind of succeeds. It takes us on a convoluted journey: from America’s readiness to go to war to the media’s obsession with creating fear; from the National Rifle Association’s crude, incomprehensible insensitivity to faux-rationalisations of the regular shootings; from an ideological obsession with the right to bear arms, to the perplexing contrast to be found in Canada. Moore veers off down many paths, and in doing so he creates a documentary that can easily lose sight of its own purpose. But one theme shines through, and that’s the search for a common denominator that explains America’s gun problem, and the methods through which he tries to get that message across makes you see why even Cannes felt obliged to stand up and pay tribute.

A lot of the film is dedicated to seeing how normal people think, if ‘normal’ is the right adjective for people so paranoid they sleep with a loaded pistol under their pillow. It’s like Americans don’t actually want to be the citizens of a state that ensures security on their behalf, despite the patriotism they all profess. They’re anarchists at heart. Not only do they predominantly favour minimal state intervention in the market, but they seem to want to be able to pop a cap in the asses of attackers whilst the police stand by and watch.

But Moore insists the problem isn’t gun ownership per se. After all, around 70% of Canadian homes are rifle-laden, but that hasn’t somehow compelled citizens of that nation to go around shooting one another. Nor can the problem be solely that the US has a violent past, even if the suggestion is used to put together a terrible sequence: a timeline of America’s wars, with video footage, to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” If this was the explanation, you would also expect to see gun crime dominating Germany and Britain. But again, that’s not the case.

Moore dismisses all the common explanations, including the ludicrous but staggeringly widespread suggestion that it’s Marilyn Manson’s nihilistic fuck-you rock and roll music that’s to blame. But what he settles on isn’t clear. It seems to be a hybrid causal hypothesis of persistently violent foreign policy, the inhumanity surrounding social treatment of the least advantaged on welfare, and television’s obsession with reporting shootings and filming cop programmes in which the white man arrests the killer black man. All three of these are elucidated in disturbing detail, but one wonders if his intuitive suggestions would stand up under sociological scrutiny. It’s a shame he doesn’t subject his proposals to the judgements of social scientists.

That Louis Armstrong sequence I mentioned is terrible for another reason: the perspective it gives you on the size of the Columbine catastrophe. Sure, it was dreadful, but it happened on the same day that Clinton sanctioned a massacre on the state of Kosovo, and nobody weeped over that, partly perhaps because hardly anyone heard about it.

As Moore ploughs on he gets more daring. He grabs an interview with Charles Heston, then leader of the NRA, who ends up walking out on him when the heat of the difficult questions begins to make him sweat. He also heads to Kmart’s executive headquarters, along with two victims of gun crime with Kmart bullets still lodged in their back close to their spine, and they demand an explanation of the supermarket’s sales policy from the men at the top. There’s something incredible about seeing such powerful people squirm this way, having to justify the indefensible to us with the camera glaring right at them. If there’s one thing positive to take from the film, it’s the fact that an American could make this documentary about his own country completely unimpeded.

The film’s most telling moment, however, arrives much earlier. Moore challenges a gun lover to justify why we should limit people to owning guns – why not let them bear plutonium, bombs and so on in the name of self-defence? The term ‘arms’ in the constitution allows for a wider interpretation, after all.

His response? ‘Well, you know, there are some wackos out there.’ Indeed there are.

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