More a scattershot hodgepodge of scenes either funny, harrowing or muddled than a real movie, Michael Moore's latest "documentary" is provocative, very smart in places, frustratingly simplistic in others, self-aggrandizing and almost always entertaining. In other words it is much like Moore himself, or at least the persona he has created.
The Moore Vancouverites have come to love (and they do love him-the film just won the Most Popular Film award at the recently completed Vancouver International Film Festival) is the rabble-rousing, shit-disturbing man of the people, the scourge of corporate America. What people tend to overlook is that he is also a shrewd manipulator and a man bent on entertaining (and, hence, making money) as much as he is on changing the world.
All of these facets are on display here. Beginning with a rousing version of Camper Van Beethoven's great "Take the Skinheads Bowling" (that the Columbine shooters went bowling on the morning of the massacre is reason enough to use the song) Bowling for Columbine attempts to look deeply into American gun culture, race relations, the class system, America's despicable role in foreign wars post-1950-to say the film overreaches its grasp is putting it mildly, but a lot of what the film does say never gets said in a mainstream vehicle.
The Columbine shootings are the jumping off point for Moore. He tries to come to grips with why Americans are so obsessed with guns and killing each other. He points out that Canada has seven million guns and relatively few gun-related murders, so why did the USA have more than 11,000 last year? He never answers the question, but through his interview with James Nichols (brother of Terry, co-conspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing), his return to his hometown of Flint to look into the terrible killing of one six-year-old by another-the film's strongest section, wherein Moore does some serious background investigative work to show that the little killer's home life was in a shambles partly due to his mother being forced into a work-for-welfare program-and his disappointing cornering of NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, Moore at least provokes more thought on the subject than anyone in recent memory.
In between we get Moore the entertainer and Moore the manipulator. A brief history of guns and race relations in America is told by a South Park-like cartoon created by Matt Stone, a Columbine alumnus. Actual video of what went on in the classrooms at Columbine is shown (one of a couple of places where the film verges on pornography). To the tune of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" (a cliché in itself), we get a timeline detailing America's involvement in foreign coups and wars beginning with the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government and ending with 9/11 that is cringe-making in its blatancy and oversimplification. Oh yes, we also are served up an interview with Marilyn Manson that (as we would expect) makes him seem the most thoughtful, erudite person in the movie, save Moore himself, of course.
If you think I'm giving away too much of the plot, believe me, I've barely scratched the surface. It's both a strength and a weakness of Bowling for Columbine that the film is constantly presenting new information and scenarios. The weakness is that it distracts from his central thesis (or theses-I counted at least four) which remains muddled and underdeveloped. The strength of this approach is that the film is almost always entertaining. The question remains: is Michael Moore serious about trying to change the American political landscape or is he just using his smart, outsider status to become the latest politically engaged entertainer to make a lot of money from people longing for some kind of media leader to embody their genuinely felt political beliefs? On the evidence of Bowling for Columbine, an argument could be made for either position.