After the success of 2002’s Bowling For Columbine and the controversial “We live in fictitious times” speech he delivered in protest against President Bush’s new war in Iraq at the 2003 Academy Awards, Michael Moore became something of a cultural phenomenon. For many, he was the very embodiment of leftist politics and opposition to the Bush administration; this, along with his eminence as a cultural figure of the times, culminated and then drifted away after his hugely popular Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to incite the requisite sedition to prevent Bush’s re-election in 2004.
Due perhaps to the biased, defamatory nature of his anti-Bush documentary and Bowling For Columbine having had time to breath after its initial hype, suspicion regarding Moore’s filmmaking started to become widely discussed. With the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Aurora movie theatre shootings in 2012, the issues raised in Bowling For Columbine are not going to go away. But 12 years on, is there anything to learn from Moore’s documentary? Or, more pertinently, should we even call it a documentary?
Using the 1999 massacre of twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado as the focal point, Moore’s film attempts to explain the United States’ obsession with firearms and proclivity for gun crime. Taking us everywhere from Littleton to Los Angeles via Chris Rock, Matt Stone and Marilyn Manson, Bowling for Columbine searches far and wide for answers as to why so many Americans are killing each other with guns. Taking centre stage throughout his own documentary, it appears that Moore is an ideologically righteous crusader for good. However, his specious jumble of tenuous connections, distortions of truth and outright demagoguery, contradict the moral high-ground on which Moore piously perches throughout the film’s 119 minutes.
A case in point is the striking opening scene where Moore takes advantage of a Michigan bank’s offer to provide a free firearm to any customer opening a new account. After delivering the scene’s punch-line, “Is it a good idea to be giving out guns at a bank?” Moore leaves us with the impression that anyone can walk in off the street and be presented with a gun right there and then on the bank’s premises. What Moore doesn’t reveal is the background check that took place before the cameras had even begun to roll and the subterfuge he employed as to the true nature of his film in order to convince the bank’s staff to eschew their usual practice and indulge him with an on-the-spot presentation of his firearm. Furthermore, the mentioning of “at least 500 firearms” in the bank’s vault is edited in such a way that it sounds as if one of the tellers is suggesting that all guns are right on hand to distribute to customers and not actually in a secured vault 300 miles away.
The fact that it is hard to disagree with his essential politics is what allows Moore to get away with what he does and undoubtedly why Bowling For Columbine was such a success; we can all agree that the massacre at Columbine was an awful thing and that it is ludicrous to live in a country where banks offer customers free guns; the viewer, therefore, is on Moore’s side from the beginning. Moore then utilises his undoubted skill as a filmmaker to sleekly offer us consistent moments of entertaining wit and comic satire to further curry favour with the viewer and build a foundation on which he can then start to sling around tendentious theories and misrepresentations.
Offered up are a number of possible reasons as to why America has such a pernicious relationship with guns; could it be the context of historical brutality, film and video games that fetishise violence, a media engendered culture of fear, bullying at schools or broken homes? Moore throws around these ideas seemingly at random and at no point does he ever achieve anything approaching a consistent thesis. While dwelling on the complexity of some of these issues, he is often too simplistic and keen to dismiss others: He rejects violent popular culture because countries like France and Japan, who have a fraction of U.S gun deaths, watch the same movies and play the same video games. A history of brutality and warfare is dismissed because America doesn’t have the same amount of blood on its hands compared to the British Empire or Nazi Germany. Even the obvious point of widespread legal access to guns is ruled out because Canada has a similarly pandemic obsession with firearms ownership but nowhere near the same level of gun-crime. At no point does it occur to Moore that, with the U.S being the only country where all these theories apply, perhaps all factors have combined to create the maelstrom of gun-related homicide in America.
The shallowness of some of his assertions is revealed by the fact that Moore, disingenuously or not, ignores qualifying mitigation to some of his points. For example, almost all of Canada’s substantial number of guns are long-barrel, single-shot hunting rifles and not privately owned handguns which do have tight legal restrictions and are overwhelmingly the type of firearm used to commit crimes in the United States. Also, Moore is at pains to emphasise a link between the wholesale violence of an interventionist state and the crimes carried out by armed individuals; did you know that on the day that the shootings at Columbine occurred, the U.S dropped more bombs on Kosovo than at any other point in that war? Moore seems to be making a point that violent foreign policy is indicative of a society that begets violent people but the more one thinks of this link the more vague it seems; Moore has already rejected warfare and brutal imperialism as a cause of gun-crime and, besides, would the individual actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold really be determined by the frequency of U.S bombs falling in Serbia?
Moore is at his most cold-blooded in his treatment of Charlton Heston who he willfully casts at the film’s villain and whose slander is no more than a documentarian using tricks akin to tabloid journalism. With the audience in the palm of Moore’s hand after thirty plus minutes of gun-toting whackos and emotional engagement with the horror of Columbine, it is all too easy for him to represent Heston as little more than a callous miscreant. After some chilling security footage of students cowering in the Columbine cafeteria and some tearful eyewitness accounts, Heston is promptly introduced holding aloft a flintlock long-rifle and declaring “From my cold dead hands.” This clip was taken from an NRA meeting in Charlotte a whole year after Columbine and not the controversial meeting that took place in Denver, Colorado just 10 days after the massacre. Moore has argued that he used the Charlotte footage merely to introduce Heston into the narrative but it does leave the impression that here is an aggressive man in pure defiance of those who told the NRA not to come to Denver so soon after the shootings.
The NRA did indeed come to Colorado just 10 days after the massacre but not exactly in the defiant, heartless way that Moore would have you believe. The facts are that the NRA cancelled every planned event associated with their annual meeting in Denver out of respect for the victims of Columbine; the sole exception was their officers’ meeting which they were obligated to hold at that particular time and place by New York state law. Moore also heavily edits Heston’s Denver speech to a series of sound bites that make him sound as insensitive and unsympathetic as possible. The truth is that Heston gave a much lengthier speech than the one we hear and Moore omits key sentiments such as “It is fitting and proper that we do this” in reference to the NRA’s decision to cancel all other events and Heston saying that the NRA are “as shocked and horrified as every other soul in American mourning for the people of Littleton.”
As the head of a dubious organisation that proudly celebrates guns, Heston is hardly a sympathetic figure but Moore’s ambushed interview, which serves as the films coup de gras, is extremely unfair. Quizzing him about the 7 million guns owned by Canadians and why they don’t have anywhere near the same homicide statistics, Heston theorises that “American history has a lot of blood on its hands.” Moore then counters “And German history doesn’t? And British history?” This reveals Moore’s tendency for slippery logic as clearly he was specifically asking Heston about Canada and its access to guns comparable to the United States. Pressed for more answers, Heston raises the suggestion of “mixed ethnicity” as a possible cause to which Moore, knowing that he has hit upon a tasty morsel that he can use to represent Heston as a possible racist, reacts by pressing him further: “You think it’s an ethnic thing?”
Despite decades of continuing progress, it is hardly unreasonable to suggest poor race relations as a cause of disharmony in a country with such diversity and it can be assumed that Heston would have included Caucasians as amongst the mix of ethnicity he mentioned. Having already planted the seed of “America’s fear of the black man” earlier in the film the impression is given that Heston has made an inference that gun crime is the domain of non-whites. Of course, no mention is given to Heston using his film-star celebrity to give awareness to civil rights marches in the 1960s and his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Moore then accosts Heston for holding another rally in Flint, Michigan shortly after the horrific shooting of 6 year old Kayla Rolland by one of her classmates. Despite the tacit implication that Heston once again defied a community in mourning to hold another pro-gun rally shortly after a terrible tragedy, the event in question was actually a “Get Out The Vote” presidential rally that had nothing to do with Heston’s ties to the NRA and, in fact, was held a full 8 months after the murder. Also, the sudden appearance of a second camera angle while Moore holds up a picture of the dead girl as Heston walks out of the interview is suspicious; it is likely that Heston wasn’t even present while Moore was making his ridiculously exploitative plea on behalf of the murdered girl. While Moore is keen to mock knee-jerk media responses in blaming such things as Marilyn Manson’s nihilistic form of shock-rock for the tragedy at Columbine, his utterly vehement scapegoating of Charlton Heston surpasses, in its ridiculousness, any possible theory offered up about the causes of the massacre.
With pop-culture slickness and a capacity for sly humour combined with the fact that Moore was essentially on the right side of an emotive issue, Bowling For Columbine was an irresistible proposition for many. It also had a sturdy anti-establishment, anti-corporate sensibility that appealed to the contrary rebelliousness of young people of which there were many who made up Moore’s fan-base. While an entertaining, extremely watchable film it has been viewed as a serious statement of integrity by those without the knowledge or tools to deconstruct it; certainly it should be approached with caution and not held up as any investigative document of merit. What Moore gave us was more a comic piece of propaganda than a documentary film. He will perhaps argue that his ends justify his means but the fact remains that, when focusing on the tragic death of innocent people, mendacity and prevarication leave a sour taste. Bowling For Columbine went on to gross $21 million in the USA and a staggering $58 million Worldwide. It also won the 2003 Oscar for ‘Best Documentary Feature.’
Fictitious times indeed.
By Scott Hammond