On the way home from seeing "Bowling for Columbine", I commented to my wife that it's harder to 'review' a documentary. After mulling this over a bit, I realized that one does not 'review' a documentary like this, since if it were judged by the same criteria as most of the other films I've reviewed over the last six years, it would receive failing grades. After all, there is no snappy patter, no eye-flexing special effects, no mammoth soundtrack composed specifically for it, no star power... nothing that a reviewer such as myself usually regurgitates into a written review. No, one does not 'review' a film like this. I decided that this would be, simply, a movie-goer's commentary on the film, and the experience of watching the film and experiencing an almost forgotten sensation in a theatre: the urge to think.
Right off the bat, I'm giving this film an A+. Michael Moore continues to impress me, as he did when I heard him speak here at Ohio University last year, as a very intelligent individual. He sees more clearly the problems facing us as a nation and as a people than most, and he's in a position to put these perceptions into a medium that allow others to share it. Documentary film has been a 'closet obsession' of mine ever since my favorite professor at Central Michigan University taught me about their history and place in our society. Dr. Rob Craig showed us the very beginnings of this type of film, and let us see that documentaries could be used for good or ill, could be entertaining or serious, and could be engaging or rather dull. But all were a type of film most of the theatre-going population of the US have probably not seen. That this is the case means that a great disservice has been done to those whose filmic-fare is limited solely to the latest 'Ahnold' blockbuster, or the most recent bloodbath. Not that those films aren't entertaining, they obviously are, but to limit oneself to only the 'Hollywood film' is tantamount to eating only potatoes: you'll survive, but you won't be at all healthy.
"Bowling for Columbine" gets its title from the little-known (at least, to me) fact that the killers in the Columbine shooting went bowling early that morning before going to school and slaughtering their peers and a teacher. Moore's film is an expose on violence in our culture, from the shooting in Littleton, to the six-year-old who shot his classmate in Flint, to the image of guns in our country, to the history of aggression by our country over the last century, to the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. In and around that, he delivers sarcastic wit and pinpoint insight about the culture in which these things can, and do, happen.
The film also features several interviews, two of which stand out. Michael managed to get an appointment with the figurehead of the National Rifle Association himself, Charlton Heston. And, speaking in true, honest, blunt Moore-style, he ends up watching while Heston walks away into the recesses of his own home, refusing to look at a photo of the little girl killed by her classmate in Flint. The other interview that stands out is with Matt Stone, co-creator of the successful animated series "South Park", who grew up in Littleton, and attended Columbine High School. Not only does he talk to Michael about his memories of being in one of the most "depressingly normal", but Matt delivers a smartly-done animated segment about the history of guns in the United States. This little vignette ends up spotlighting the core message of the film, a message that needs to be taught in every school, and every religious institution, and every community organization.
America is as America is because we live in constant fear.
Fear of what, however, is where the true problem lies. Our government and our media work to keep us in a highly agitated state of fear and suspicion. Any who study advertising realize that the core means by which advertising does what it does is to convince you, the consumer, that there is a problem, a cause for concern, and then explain how their product can alleviate that concern and solve the problem. (For those of you who don't know what I mean, ask yourself what, exactly, is the problem with having dandruff? Is it life-threatening? Is it contagious? No. It's only a problem because the makers of Head and Shoulders decided that, if they made it a social problem, then they could sell their 'cure' and make money.)
What hadn't processed yet, however, was the fact that our media do this exact thing. They make us afraid. Our news is full of violent crime, heedless of the fact that the incidents of violent crime, according to Moore and the Sheriff of Flint, have been dropping for almost the last decade. The violent crime rate drops, and the number of stories about violent crime increases by a factor of 600%. And the villains seen in local news are, more often then not, Black or Latino. Shows like "Cops" give the average white American reason to fear those different from themselves, because they are the only images associated with crime that we're provided with.
Tomorrow, I begin teaching a basic media literacy course here at the University. It is my job to make my students aware of the various motivations behind what they see and hear and read in the media. Thanks to Mr. Moore, my job has just been made a little easier. My hope is that I will be able to show my students this film before the end of the quarter. I think everyone in America should be made to watch this film, and then take part in a round-table discussion afterwards where this message about fear and violence can be explained to those who didn't (or wouldn't) understand from the film alone.
The fact that, in Canada, there are seven million guns in ten million homes, and their murder rate is in the low three-digits, compared to the American rate which is over 11,000, made no sense, until Moore focused (albeit briefly) on the difference in the Canadian governmental and media attitude towards violence. When all that one sees is violence, one begins to expect violence and feel that like response is the only viable option. In Canada, they see all the same movies we do, play all the same video games, watch the same prime-time television and listen to the same music. And yet... the difference remains.
Go see this film. You may have to hunt for it, but if you have to drive a half hour, or an hour, or two hours, to get somewhere where it's showing, do it. First of all, you'll walk out of the theatre humbled, sobered, and more aware, which is always a good thing. And secondly, you'll be giving your money to a filmmaker who isn't a millionaire, who isn't obsessed with special effects, who isn't trying to please his fans, and who doesn't care about merchandising. Michael Moore makes me even more proud to say I'm from Michigan. He's the type of documentary filmmaker that will help us understand how our country works, and why it feels the way it does. This is someone worth supporting, and I encourage you, no... I beg of you, do so.
In closing, I feel it only fitting to mention the truly wonderful feeling of seeing myself and my fellow attendees of Michael's appearance at OU last year in the credits. "Mike's Militia Athens Branch" is at the bottom of the second screen of "Thank You's" at the end of the film, and a cheer erupted from the crowd when it flashed on-screen. We remember, and we're thrilled you do too, Mr. Moore. Rock on. Keep up the good work, and we'll keep doing what we can to help you help us and our fellow Americans. That should be our goal anyway, it's just nice to have a leader.