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BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Moore
Director:  Michael Moore
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  August 19, 2003

“If I state something as a fact, I need the viewers to trust that those facts are correct.” – Michael Moore

Film (zero stars)

The second ugliest aspect to come out of the Columbine incident, next to the shootings themselves, was the fact that a week or so later a few sick-minded, entrepreneurial individuals were actually selling copies of the school’s security footage, depicting the killing rampage as it occurred.  Still caught up in the throes of grief, the nation instantly and intensely expressed its outrage and disgust over the practice.  The selling was quickly reeled in, with outlets like eBay making sure that these videos were no longer distributed through them.

But there is some solace for those who really wanted to see the footage.  Forget high-priced, low quality reproductions sold under the table…now, all you have to do is pick up Michael Moore’s “documentary” Bowling for Columbine, because Moore, the undisputed master of grandstanding, has been kind enough to include the footage for you.  No need to reach for your remote in order to study it more closely, either…Moore had the foresight to slow the footage down FOR you.

On the other hand, if you’re like me, you won’t be excited by that prospect.  Instead, you’ll call it for what it is:  the most detestable example of true exploitation ever brought to the screen, and one that reeks of Michael Moore’s incessant need for sensationalism.  As someone who’s seen plenty of his television programming over the years, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Yet I was.  Exactly how shameless, vile and grotesque does an idea have to be before Moore actually throws up his hands and says, “Wait a minute…I really don’t think I should go there.”?  James Cameron’s expeditions to the bottom of the ocean are only a trifle until he manages to explore how low THAT would have to be.

Bowling opens with a terrific vignette that became famously touted by critics promoting the movie.  Moore walks into a bank that is holding an unusual promotion:  open an account with them with a minimum deposit, and you get a hunting rifle.  It seemed too outrageous to be true…but we follow Moore in with his cameras, and sure enough…after filling out the paperwork and plopping down his money, the bank presents him with his new gun.  They are a licensed gun dealership in addition to being a bank, they inform him.  Moore’s excellent final question:  “Do you think it’s a good idea to be handing out guns in a bank?”

We laugh, and so we don’t think about the fact that Moore cut after his question so that there is no answer.  As it turns out, the entire incident was staged.  True, the bank was running that promotion, but they weren’t giving out the guns.  Customers received vouchers in order to collect their hunting rifles at a participating dealer! 

According to a column by Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (and I should point out that Mr. Ebert is normally a lauder of Moore’s work), “Jan Jacobson, the bank employee who worked with Mr. Moore on his account, says that only happened because Mr. Moore’s film company had worked for a month to stage the scene.  ‘What happened at the bank was a prearranged thing,’ she says.  The gun was brought from a gun dealer in another city, where it would normally have to be picked up.  ‘Typically, you're looking at a week to 10 days waiting period,’ she says.”

Why would Moore circumvent the truth that way?  Well, no question that it makes for better footage.  Who would care if he walked out of the bank with a voucher instead of a gun?  But he crosses the line between arranging a good shot (no pun intended) and self-aggrandizement when he poses a fake question at the end and is forced to cut away from the answer because the answer would give away his scheme.

My mother always used to warn me about the dangers of lying.  You lie and you get caught, and people are going to have a tough time believing you again in the future.  Moore sets up his “documentary” for such a failure with this opening.  Once you realize he’s capable of performing, scripting and staging his scenes while passing them off as real, how do we follow him for the rest of the film and accept anything we hear or see?

But as it turns out, he wasn’t finished…he puts a couple of kids from Columbine in front of the cameras to say that the two shooters went bowling on the morning of the killings as part of a phys-ed class.  Again, it’s sensational…and untrue, as he paid no heed to the other members of the student body, faculty and administration, or even law enforcement agents who protested the falsity of that, and continue to protest it to this day.  Moore obviously applies the cynical reporters’ line of “never let facts get in the way of a good story” to his film work as well.  Killers bowl, then shoot…it’s too good to pass up.  And it makes for a catchy title, too.

In another scene, Moore deliberately misquotes a plaque on a B-52 bomber at the Air Force Academy, telling viewers it “proudly proclaims that the plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve of 1972”.  The plaque in fact reads, “Flying out of Utapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield in southeast Thailand, the crew of Diamond Lil shot down a MIG northeast of Hanoi during Linebacker II action on Christmas Eve, 1972”.  Again, quite a difference between truth and fiction.

And the raping of fact continues…Moore goes on to claim that weapons of mass destruction were being built at a Lockheed-Martin plant near Columbine, and asks whether that might have inspired the shootings.  The plant in question only developed satellite-launching rockets.  He amusingly points out that the NRA was founded in the same year as the Ku Klux Klan…again, false; the former was founded in 1871, a full five years after the KKK initiated.  He stages a scene of buying ammunition at a Canadian Wal-Mart as though he were buying milk, strongly proclaiming how easy it is.  The Canadian government has since protested the fakery and illegality of the scene; no foreign citizen can buy guns or ammo in their country without providing a firearms borrowing or importation license.  Bits and pieces of speeches delivered by NRA president Charlton Heston at varying times and places were carefully spliced together to create false impressions that the man was callous about the Columbine and Flint, Michigan shootings.  Moore’s entire film is based on an intricately tangled web of deception.

And Columbine and Flint aren’t the only tragedies he deceitfully exploits…how about September 11?  After claiming the United States sent $245 million in aid “to the Taliban government of Afghanistan”, he cuts to the shot of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  Had what he said been the truth, it wouldn’t have excused such sensationalism, but again, Moore doesn’t let facts clutter his “documentary”…the money in question was actually given through United Nations charitable organizations to help relieve famine in Afghanistan, and even to begin clearing some of the country’s deadly minefields.

Most documentarians will interview experts on camera to get the benefits of their wisdoms and opinions on their subject…think of the wonderful Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ The Civil War.  Michael Moore makes a film about the gun problem in the United States, and in exploring the issue, he enlists the help of…Marilyn Manson??  Matt Stone of South Park fame?? 

Don’t get me wrong…I have nothing against either of those guys, or their thoughts on gun control (and the killers were allegedly Manson fans, which led some to finger the shock-rock singer as a possible inspiration for the deeds).  But Moore obviously opted for noted celebrities over anonymous experts, partly because most experts would probably deflate his arguments like a bursting balloon or at least later loudly protest having been involved in such a deliberately misleading film, but also partly because having famous people was yet another way of lending sensationalism to his piece.  It would be like making a film on mathematical irregularities in thermonuclear physics and interviewing Anna Nicole Smith.

But filmmaking sometimes requires a bit of luck, and Michael Moore’s big break came from the fact that the bullets used in the Columbine shootings came from K Mart.  A little mom and pop sporting goods store would have been no use to him…no national stage for him to storm and occupy.  Instead, a gleeful Moore marched survivors up to the corporate office of K Mart with camera crew in tow and berate and blame the company for the incident.  He even makes one boy strip off his shirt in front of the entire corporate lobby to show his scars.  “That’s a K Mart bullet he has in him,” Moore points out.  And I found myself asking, who was the true villain of the piece…the corporation that sold bullets in its stores, or the man who was willing to shame and exploit a victim of a tragedy for his own braggadocio? 

It didn’t matter.  Much to Moore’s surprise, K Mart agreed to phase out and end the sale of bullets in their stores.  “We won,” he stammers, not looking terribly pleased.  Maybe he wasn’t expecting that outcome.  Or maybe he realized that when gun violence continued, even in schools, without bullets from K Mart, that the world would see how full of baloney he was, and how heartless and pointless his exploitation of that tragedy was.

The film concludes with a tasteless bit (what else?), the blame for which cannot fully be placed on Moore.  He manages to manipulate his way into an interview with actor and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston by posing at first as pro-NRA.  Then he proceeds to badger and berate Heston, placing the blame for Columbine and other tragic shootings on the NRA until finally, a bewildered and cross Heston leaves the interview, while Moore places the large photo of Kayla Rolland, the young shooting victim of Flint, in his garden.

In his defense, Moore didn’t know at the time that Heston was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but sadly for him, that fact was revealed before his picture went into mass distribution.  I’m sure he thought he was being funny and clever at the time, but now, it only comes across as him bullying a fragile old man with a degenerative brain disorder.

And so the picture ends, as Shakespeare would say, filled with sound and fury and signifying nothing.  Gun violence is indeed a horrible problem in this country and worthy of a serious documentary.  Unfortunately, it didn’t get one in Bowling for Columbine, which is nothing more than a bloated exercise in ego in which Michael Moore’s favorite real-life subject continues to be Michael Moore.  With distorted facts, staged scenes, and forcing the country to re-live one of its most heartbreaking tragedies through vile exploitation and sensationalism, Moore has proven himself once again to be nothing more than a despicable self-promoting egoist. 

The kids of Columbine, victims of violence everywhere, and intelligent movie-going audiences deserved much better.

Video **

Moore’s film is a bit of a hodgepodge of mixed media…actual news footage, some animation, and so on.  His staged scenes, like in his TV shows, weren’t exactly filmed with an eye for art; they were done quickly and inexpensively and as such, don’t merit much aesthetic value.  Images range from medium definition to soft, with some grain apparent from time to time.  This is not the fault of the anamorphic transfer, however…merely an issue of source material.  It’s as good as it really needs to be; not much more.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is nicely done, with a fair amount of dynamic range.  There’s not a lot of call for rear speaker action, but the front stage stays busy with music, dialogue, and of course, gunfire.

Features **

If you can’t get enough of Michael Moore as much as he can’t get enough of himself, you’re in luck.  He’s all over this DVD.  There’s a new introduction and a short interview with him, plus a featurette on Moore at the University of Denver, a scrapbook of his appearances at three major film festivals, a Marilyn Manson music video, a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and a Charlie Rose interview with Moore, a trailer, photo gallery and DVD ROM content.  Basically, just more and more of Moore.

The strangest feature is an audio commentary by his office receptionist and interns, which is as worthless as it sounds.  If Moore was trying to be funny with that, surprise…he failed again.

Summary:

Michael Moore continues to beat his breast only to reveal the shallow sound of his lack of heart.  He was willing to climb upon the graves of innocent victims and exploit their tragic deaths in order to grandstand, spin deceit and line his own pockets.  Bowling for Columbine is a contemptible exercise in ego-inflated fakery and will live in Oscar infamy for its undeserving win.