Mike Moore: the awful truth about US violence

Issue 

Bowling for Columbine

Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore

Opens December 26

At major cinemas

REVIEW
BY MARGARET ALLUM

Visiting the Bowling for Columbine web site is more like visiting
an activist site than a film promo. There are options for getting involved
in a range grassroots campaigns, information on which Democrats in the
US Congress support the war on Iraq, as well as profiles of Green candidates
who ran in the November 5 US congressional election. Click “Operation:
Oily Residue” and you get an update on US aggression against Iraq.

This should not come as a surprise, since Michael Moore — film maker,
social critic and professional agitator — is the force behind Bowling
for Columbine
. Moore's television series, The Awful Truth, won
a huge audience for his mischievous anti-corporate ideas and progressive
politics, and his book Stupid White Men and Other Sorry Excuses for
the State of the Nation
was on the New York Times best-seller's
list for 18 weeks.

A controversial segment of The Awful Truth was the “Teen Sniper
School”. Its premise was that students at US high schools occasionally
went on the rampage, gunning down their teachers and peers, but generally
the body count was fairly low. Moore decided that specialised training
was required to address the poor shooting skills of America's alienated
youth.

Those who didn't appreciate the pointed black humour of the segment
were horrified to see images of teens and pre-teens being “trained” to
use semi-automatic weapons. While this part of The Awful Truth was
screened in Australia, it never made it to US TV screens.

I was expecting Moore's latest cinematic venture
to be something of an extended and developed version of “Teen Sniper School”,
but it was much more.

Bowling for Columbine examines shootings like the Columbine High
School massacre in 1999 (which took place just after “Teen Sniper School”
was completed), and other acts of individual violence, such as the 1995
Oklahoma City bombing. Moore positions these incidents within the wider
culture of violence in the US. At one point, he compares it to the similarly
gun-toting (all that “moose huntin' and shootin'”), yet generally much
less violent, Canadian society.

Bowling for Columbine describes the US love affair with guns,
which manifests itself in supermarkets that sell firearms and banks that
offer a bonus rifle when a new account opened.

Moore takes two Columbine students, who still have bullets lodged in
their bodies, to confront the managing director of Wal-mart, the supermarket
chain in the US which stocks ammunition and, until recently, firearms.

Patriotism and individualism are taken to the extreme in the US. Some
believe that it is downright un-American not to own a gun. Moore interviews
Charlton Heston, the Hollywood actor and president of the National Rifle
Association (which incidently was set up by the Ku Klux Klan). Heston makes
it his mission to speak at pro-gun rallies in areas that have been tragically
affected by school shootings. “From my cold, dead hands!” is Heston's gladiatorial
rally cry, as he explains how his gun will be taken from him.

Interviewed in front of his movie poster collection, Heston cuts a less
than Ben Hur-like figure these days, and seems distinctly uncomfortable
with the direction of Moore's questions about his role in the NRA and his
attitude to the school shootings.

Bowling for Columbine looks at racism and the development the
“culture of fear” as it relates to gun ownership. A segment of the cartoon
series South Park within the film manages to be both a hilarious
yet sobering potted history of the violent European colonisation of the
Americas.

Wider questions of poverty and inequality within
US society are also tackled by Moore. The shooting of a six-year-old girl
by her classmate at school is discussed. The six-year-old shooter found
a gun at home and brought it to the classroom. Instead of pointing all
the blame at the parents, as much of the establishment media did at the
time, Moore exposes how the unsupervised boy's mother had to leave home
well before her son to attend a “welfare to work” (work for the dole) program
several hours' travel away.

In typical Moore-style, US television personality Dick Clark, the owner
of the restaurant that employed the woman, is grilled about his sense of
personal responsibility for the tragedy. Not surprisingly, Clark is less
than willing to engage in dialogue. And yes, within days of this tragic
event, the Charlton Heston roadshow came to town.

But this is also not just a movie about gun violence and gun control.
Bowling for Columbine also exposes US violence in the broader context
of US President George Bush's “war on terror” and US militarism. Moore
scathingly reports the US military's global aggression and gives a brief
history of US military interventions to bring “truth, justice and the American
way” to the world. According to Moore, the day of the Columbine school
shootings coincided with the largest US bombing raids in the Balkans war.

When it opened in Britain, Bowling for Columbine grossed US$250,000
in its first weekend, a record for a documentary. It was the first documentary
film in 46 years to be accepted into official competition at the Cannes
Film Festival, where it won the 2002 Special Jury Prize and received a
13-minute standing ovation.

Reviewers have criticised the film's lack of cohesion; it does sometimes
appear to be less than smooth flowing, but it's not really such a major
flaw.

Moore doesn't really present solutions to the problems he exposes, but
it is the exposure that plays an important role in awakening people to
the issues raised.

Go and see Bowling for Columbine. For many Green Left Weekly
readers, much of it will not be new, but it is information presented in
a clever, entertaining and sometimes confronting way. Better still, bring
someone with you who you think deserves an education in some of the realities
of the global environment.

[Visit <http://www.bowlingforcolumbine.com>
and <http://www.michaelmoore.com>
for more Mike Moore.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.

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