Michael Moore Guns for the Real Issues in 'Bowling for Columbine'
By Michael Rose
Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has developed a knack for methodically and humorously unmasking the powerful, who for some unknown reason keep taking his calls and granting him interviews.
In his latest effort, Bowling for Columbine, he turns his camera on Moses and Ben Hur’s alter ego, the current president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Charlton Heston. Gaining access to Heston’s gated lair, he asks the octogenarian proponent of unfettered gun ownership to explain his views. Heston takes the bait and slowly, under the influence of Moore’s prodding, we see filmdom’s commanding lawgiver equivocate and arrogantly defend his positions. Heston is asked if he would apologize for leading a pro-gun, NRA-sponsored rally in Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan, just days after a six-year old boy had gone into a Flint elementary school and shot and killed a girl. Instead of apologizing, Heston indignantly walks out. Moore follows behind, imploring Heston to stop and take a look at a photo of the dead girl. Heston pauses, but walks away.
Moore had drawn a bead on Heston before embarking on the production of his new film. Originally, he thought he’d join the NRA, run for president, defeat Heston and dismantle the organization. But that was “too hard,” explains Moore. Instead, in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, he decided to make a film about guns in America.
The resulting film was the first documentary in 46 years to be accepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival, an honor that came as a complete surprise to Moore. He was awakened by a call from the festival organizers in France on his birthday last year. They wanted to see, “how I’d feel if my film was in competition,” he chuckles. “A great way to wake up.”
The popular view of the Cannes Film Festival is one of a carnival of starlets, klieg lights and endless photo opportunities, originally designed to pump up the local economy after World War II. The local public doesn’t think of Cannes as an effort to further the appreciation of filmmaking. Moore found that beneath the glitz and glamour, “It is really a gathering of people from around the world of film who love film as an art form . . . it’s not about starlets.”
This year’s gathering took to his film and awarded it with a special 55th Anniversary Prize and an unprecedented 13-minute ovation after the first screening. Moore remembers the moment: “It was unbelievable. [The applause started] immediately before the credits began and it went all through the credits and they kept going. You are so red-faced because you are so embarrassed by it. You’re trying to get them to cut it out. You’re trying to get them to stop applauding. And the head of the festival comes over and says, ‘do not stop the applause; you are to stand there and take it.’”
This apparent shyness or reluctance to accept public adulation may help to explain why his on-camera persona seems so approachable. He doesn’t come across as the caped crusading media superhero; instead, he’s a slightly rumpled, baseball-capped everyman who has the Clintonesque capacity to “feel your pain.” Like a modern day Diogenes who’s traded in his lantern for a camera, Moore shines his light into the dark soul of America to discover if “there’s something unique about our psyche that wants to kill first and ask questions later.”
People repeatedly open up to him as he journeys directly into the line of fire. Members of the ultra-right wing Michigan Militia invite him to join them on the firing range. A friendly bank officer gladly allows him to let the cameras roll as Moore opens a bank account that rewards him with surprising premium—a new rifle. The irony of handing out guns as inducements to open up accounts at a bank is lost on the employees. Moore, who’d once won marksmanship badges while in the Boy Scouts, admitted to enjoying hoisting the rifle to his shoulder and checking out the bolt action. “It’s a gender thing,” he explains.
While Moore seems to understand the siren call of guns, James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols, the convicted co-conspirator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, remains chillingly clueless. He gleefully takes Moore into his bedroom to show him the loaded gun he keeps under his pillow. Later, sitting at Nichols’ kitchen table, Moore tries to discuss whether guns should be restricted. Nichols is adamant about maintaining unfettered access to weaponry, but he does stop at nuclear arms. “There are wackos out there,” he explains.
The film keeps asking, why do so many “wackos” in the United States use firearms to kill people? Looking at the tally of annual gun deaths in the US versus that of other industrialized countries, Moore, like most people, surmises that it’s because there are just so many more guns here. Only 165 people are killed by guns every year in Canada, compared to the 11,127 gun deaths across the border in the US.
When Moore journeys north in search of answers, he’s surprised to find that the Canadians are proportionally a well-armed people. “It just kills me,” he says. “They seem just like us, and yet they’re not like us. They can have seven million guns in their homes, 10 million homes in the country…and yet they don’t kill each other.”
The audience shares Moore’s surprise as he learns that the answers are more complex. “If you were surprised by that, it’s because I, the filmmaker, was surprised by that. And in my filmmaking, I want you to share the roller coaster that I’m on.”
Moore believes that when documentarians start with a rigid thesis and plan, it’s a prescription for creating boring films. To him, “It’s more interesting if I let you in on my sort of sense of discovery than if I start the documentary with a set agenda.”
He was also surprised by Marilyn Manson, the androgynous shock rocker. Manson had been vilified by a chorus of voices right after the Columbine massacre, when it was revealed that the two shooters had listened to his records. The Christian Right, the media and Senator Joseph Lieberman singled him out as “the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company.” Moore admits to also having reservations about Manson: “I remember our daughter buying a Marilyn Manson record and my wife and I slipping into her bedroom one day and taking it out of there and hoping she wouldn’t miss it.”
Of course, she was on to her folks right away, and Moore’s misgivings didn’t keep him from seeking an interview with Manson when the rocker rolled into Denver, near the hometown of Columbine High School. Instead of an angry, inarticulate pop star, Manson proved a thoughtful social commentator who refused to take the blame for the violence at Columbine. Once again, Moore and the audience are surprised. “I couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth,” says Moore. “Some of the most intelligent things about fear and consumption and how we’re manipulated by this and how Columbine got the nation distracted from the real issues we should be talking about.”
It’s the way in which Moore talks about the “real issues” that makes his films so accessible and popular. While some would back away from using humor to deal with serious subjects such as gun violence, he unashamedly embraces it. “I think it’s the most effective weapon there is to go up against different things that you see are wrong in the world. Our greatest comedians and greatest film people who have used comedy have been very angry people who have wanted to make commentary on the social condition.”
Moore makes more than “commentary” with this film; he actually makes a difference. We follow him as he takes two students who were wounded at Columbine to the headquarters of Kmart, which had sold the bullets that the children still carried in their bodies. Moore and the students aimed to get Kmart to stop selling bullets. Instead of ushering the group out, Kmart eventually met its demands; Moore and the students were ecstatic. “They should be applauded for that, because it’s rare,” he says. He doesn’t anticipate other corporations being as easy to convince, for several reasons—primarily, it would just “encourage other citizens to ask for things, God forbid.”
We can only hope he’ll continue his quest to keep us laughing and thinking—and asking for things.
Michael Rose is a writer and producer, and he serves on the IDA’s Board of Directors.