Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 19, 2018)
Back in 2003, Michael Moore won an Oscar for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine - and then only got one more nomination in the following years. Even though 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 remains by far the highest-grossing documentary of all-time, it didn’t even get a sniff from the Academy.
This likely comes as a result of Moore’s very political acceptable speech at the 2003 Oscars, as he earned rare boos during the ceremony. Or maybe people realized that as a filmmaker, Moore is more carnival huckster than true documentarian, a trait that comes to the fore in the flawed Bowling.
In the aftermath of the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, Moore decides to examine the roots and causes of America’s problems with gun violence. He traces a number of factors as he gets into the issue.
If you click here, you’ll find this site’s original review of Bowling, a piece written by David Williams. Normally I’d simply reuse the movie discussion from that article, but in this case, I felt a need to pen my own thoughts.
David was and remains a friend, but I think he missed the boat when it came to Bowling. David viewed the film as an attack on the Second Amendment, whereas I think this doesn’t represent Moore’s message in the least.
Indeed, Moore often takes pains to build up his bona fides as a Second Amendment supporter. He covers his lifelong history with guns as well as his longtime membership in the NRA. Whatever Moore may be, a strident anti-gun lobbyist doesn’t seem to fit.
Moore's not especially coherent in terms of his thesis, but it seems to me the biggest thread he offers relates to the monetization of fear. He posits that the US has more gun violence than other countries because the media scares us into a level of constant terror that prompts more aggressive pursuit of and use of weapons.
At no point does Moore actually advocate banning guns. In one of the more shameless scenes, he tries to get Kmart to remove handgun ammo from the shelves via the use of wounded teens, but he never pushes for bans.
Moore seems more interested in addressing the societal causes of the violence. One of the movie's most prominent themes relates to the six-year-old girl shot by a classmate who found the handgun in his temporary home.
Moore doesn't castigate the owner of the pistol or the laws that allowed the person to acquire the weapon. Instead, he goes after the societal issues that caused the child who used the gun to be left unsupervised for long periods because his mother couldn't make ends meet.
At times like these, Moore can make some good points, but he scatters on-target observations around the film in such a way that they lose a lot of impact. As usual for Moore, the movie's main point seems to be that he's more intelligent and socially conscious than everyone else, and like most of Moore's work, it's all over the place and seems more interested in soundbites than coherence.
Take the aforementioned Kmart sequence. Apparently the ammo used in the Columbine massacre came from that store, and one of the victims ended up with the bullets left inside of him. Gimmicky to the core, Moore contrives that he will “return” the ammo to Kmart and he takes two Columbine victims with him as he visits the company’s central offices.
Moore claims he wants to get Kmart to drop the sales of handgun bullets, but I suspect he really desired nothing more than a big show of haughty indignation. I think he figured the stooges at Kmart headquarters would toss him out on his ear and he’d get to “prove” corporate indifference to pain and suffering.
This doesn’t occur. Instead, the Kmart execs meet with Moore and the victims and they almost immediately announce they’ll drop handgun ammo from their stores.
Moore feigned happiness about this, but I think he actually felt disappointed. After all, his main thesis pushes toward his belief that the US suffers from so much gun violence because of all the money to be made, so the sight of a corporation that appears to shun sales to “do the right thing” subverts his agenda.
Whatever agenda that is. As noted, Moore largely theorizes that the US encounters so much gun violence due to the aforementioned “corporatization of fear”, but that’s only one of the many ideas he tosses out nearly at random.
In the vein of the Kmart segment, Moore seems more interested in grand theatrics, even if they don’t make sense. Moore smells cheap sentiment via the aforementioned dead six-year-old, so he digs into that via a series of tacky sequences.
We find out that the mother of the boy who shot the girl had to work far from home at a restaurant with the Dick Clark brand attached, so Moore attempts a so-called “interview” with Clark. Moore ambushes Clark to get the businessman to admit… I don’t know. Moore seems desperate to blame Clark for the killing – or at least make him culpable – but this seems like a radical stretch.
In the movie’s purported climax – and arguably its most disliked segment – Moore visits Hollywood icon Charlton Heston to chat with him. In his later years, the actor became the public face of the NRA, and according to Bowling, he would show up for rallies/speeches in places where gun-related tragedy had recently occurred. At the very least, that seems tacky and insensitive on the part of Heston and the NRA, so I’m fine with Moore’s desire to poke at the actor for these apparently callous decisions.
Matters go off the rails because Moore again tries to get a celebrity to admit some form of culpability for the death of that six-year-old. Moore badgers Heston to apologize to the dead girl, and when the actor abandons the interview, Moore mawkishly leaves behind the child’s photo.
At the time of the session, apparently Heston already suffered ill effects from Alzheimer’s, a factor that causes some to attack Moore. I don’t fault Moore for this, as he couldn’t have known Heston’s mental status.
I do blame Moore for his shameless attempt to use the little girl’s death for his own aims, though. The hypocrisy Moore demonstrates floors me, and this scene almost single-handedly destroys whatever goodwill the filmmaker built across Bowling.
Because the movie does come with some good sequences. As mentioned, I think the general theory that the media and businesses “sell fear” to Americans makes sense, and some of the individual movie segments work.
In particular, an interview with James Nichols – the brother of Oklahoma City bombing accomplice Terry – provides a real look into the eyes of madness. Accused in that terrorist act, James didn’t get convicted, but his wild-eyed appearance here leaves zero doubt that a) he participated in the bombing and b) he’s completely insane.
Back in 2002, radical zealots like Nichols seemed like sideshow oddities, but in the climate of 2018, they’ve found a niche in the mainstream. In a world where the president of the US praises a nutbag like Alex Jones and endorses all manner of crazy conspiracy theories, does it seem like a stretch that characters like Nichols would find greater public acceptance?
So Bowling occasionally gives us the memorable moment such as this. Unfortunately, too much of it feels like a random collection of vaguely connected snippets without a lot of logic or coherence.
In addition, Moore leaves far too little room for interpretation/other viewpoints. Granted, that's part of what makes his movies stand out, as they're forceful and not wishy-washy about POV, but it also means his movies tend to be overbearing and borderline propaganda. Bowling suffers from too many flaws to become an effective program.