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Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2003

Mike Moore draws a bead on half-cocked gunslingers



Bowling For Columbine

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Michael Moore
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

In Japan, when you open a new bank account, your promotional gift is usually "character goods" -- a Mickey Mouse mug or a Snoopy key chain. In the United States, you can get a gun -- more bang for your buck -- as a Michigan-based bank's promotional campaign promises.

News photo
Michael Moore in his documentary "Bowling For Columbine"

Now this is the point where most Japanese readers of this review will pause, lean back and let out a long "eeeeeeh" of disbelief. But don't just take my word on it: Check out Michael Moore's documentary on American gun mania, "Bowling For Columbine." One minute into the film, he's in a bank peering down the sights of a rifle, surrounded by grinning bank employees.

Surreal? Yes, very. But no less so than a Michigan hunter who's accidently shot by his dog. Or the rightwing antigovernment kook (Mike Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry Nichols), who's an organic soy-bean farmer. Then there's the morning of April 20, 1999, when disgruntled students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to bowl a few frames before going to Columbine High School and shooting dozens of their classmates.

This sort of madness verges on becoming unremarkable in the U.S. today, but Moore seeks to highlight the insanity and rekindle people's outrage. Why is it, he asks in the film's central question, that countries like Japan, England and Canada have minuscule gun homicide rates (39 a year in Japan), while the U.S. has topped 11,000 per year and continues to climb?

The answer to this is obvious to anyone except Americans: It's their total aversion to the effective, proven solution -- gun control. Moore sets his sights on the National Rifle Association -- the profligate and powerful pro-gun lobby -- and the rabid beliefs of its president, actor Charlton Heston.

To his credit, Moore moves beyond the easy targets to raise more probing questions. Canada also has widespread gun ownership, but minus the alarming level of violence; Why is that? Due to America's violent past? Well, what about Germany?

Perhaps the culprit is violent video games and music: The Columbine killers were big fans of "Doom" and Marilyn Manson. Again, Moore asks, what about Canada or Japan or Australia, which mostly consume the same media? What makes the U.S. different?

This question remains hanging even at the film's end, echoing like the gunshot that killed Martin Luther King Jr. Moore ultimately finds no easy answer, but he raises a lot of loaded questions. Fear, race, the lack of social cohesion and community -- all these get thrown into the mix, but nothing is as controversial as Moore's "top-down" theory. Is it purely coincidence, he insinuates, that the U.S. was bombing Yugoslavia and blew up a school the same morning that the Columbine tragedy occurred?

This connection proves a bit of a stretch for many viewers and deserves a deeper examination than Moore's somewhat sound-bitey approach. But Moore isn't just free-associating: One of the biggest employers in Littleton, Colo., is the Lockheed-Martin corporation, producing the very same cruise missiles being launched at the U.S.'s enemies overseas.

One of the film's most mind-blowing scenes comes when Moore interviews a Lockheed official in front of a massive missile. The spokesman tells Moore how Lockheed is sponsoring anger-management classes at local schools and earnestly insists that "you don't get irritated with someone, and just because you're angry, bomb or shoot them?" The irony is lost on the guy making the point, but Moore being Moore, he uses the line to segue to a montage of U.S.-led wars, coups and political violence, from Vietnam to El Salvador to Panama. And to really make his point, Moore throws in Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World?"

It's hardly subtle, but it is effective. Moore -- author of the best-selling "Stupid White Men" -- is better at wicked humor than he is at sociopolitical analysis, and "Bowling" plays like Noam Chomsky hosting "Saturday Night Live." Even "South Park" creator Matt Stone makes an appearance, contributing a hilarious five-minute history of America and its firearms. Again, the connection is not gratuitous: Stone's alma mater is Columbine High School.

The director is far more reverent with Marilyn Manson, who admittedly gives a very clear-headed look at how the media uses him as a scapegoat, and the deeper roots of teen alienation. Still, Moore could have asked why Manson -- named after a mass murderer -- resonated so deeply with such violent kids. Moore has no such reticence when confronting Heston, who comes off as particularly loathsome, happily reciting scripted responses until he gets a real question, at which point he leaves the room, scared of honest debate.

Gangsta culture and urban crime are conspicuously absent, even as Moore offers fear -- especially white fear of blacks -- as one of the key reasons for mass gun ownership. Presumably, any image of a lower-class minority involved in gun murder would derail his argument.

And that's a shame, because the argument against mass gun ownership is self-evidently a strong one, it doesn't need such obvious manipulation. If, as the NRA claims, a well-armed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny, you need only offer the warlords and anarchy of Afghanistan or Somalia in reply.

Nevertheless, "Bowling For Columbine" makes for a fascinating 90 minutes; Moore's film is funny, tragic and at times deeply revealing. For anyone who's ever wondered why the U.S. can't get its head around some sensible firearms control, this film will open your eyes to the extent of the problem: "From my cold, dead fingers," bellows Heston, a rifle raised high, as he addresses a bellicose pro-gun rally . . . in Littleton, Colo., mere days after the massacre.



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