Early on in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), a chilling scene unfolds. The late NRA leader Charlton Heston stands before a crowd, holding a rifle above his head as he screams defiantly that anyone who attempts to regulate his firearms will have to pry them from his “cold, dead hands!” According to to the data provided by the Sydney School of Public Health, as well as an estimation of gun-related deaths that been reported thus far in 2017, there have been approximately 516,356 deaths caused by guns in America alone in the fifteen years following that speech, which was given so emphatically nearly a year after the massacre at Columbine High School. “Cold, dead hands” is no small phrase when it can be tied to nearly half a million people.
Bowling for Columbine (2002) is an exemplary documentary because of its cultural relevancy at the time of its release as well its importance in the present day, when the national debate on gun control has reached a boiling point and vitriolic rhetoric is continually flung from opposing sides. The title itself stems from the fact that Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to a bowling class the same morning that they murdered thirteen people. In his review of the film for The Journal of American History, Ron Briley lingers on the moment where Moore questions life’s ironic marriage of banality and chaos as he “bowls a few frames” himself and inquires why “over eleven thousand Americans die each year from gunshot wounds” (1144). Since the film was released, that national average has jumped to roughly 30,000.
In a review of the film found in Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, author Patrick Finn describes how Bowling for Columbine critically analyzes the gun debate in America “through the lens of a number of tragedies involving gun deaths,” examining not only the shootings that took place at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 but also the broader “saga of socioeconomic strife in and around Flint, Michigan” (65). The film proved divisive upon its release and remains controversial to this day, with pro-gun conservatives viewing it as “left wing claptrap” from a virulently provocative filmmaker and anti-gun liberals seeing it as a “scathing indictment of a gun-loving, fear ridden society” which is a danger to itself as well as the innocent lives caught in the crossfire (Finn 65).
According to Leger Grindon, author of “Q & A: Poetics of the Documentary Film Interview,” while Moore represents the “American political documentary associated with [Emile] de Antonio” the way he conducts his interview more closely resemble “those of the French verité tradition” (10). In many ways, Michael Moore could be pegged as the “star performer” of his own film; while other political documentarians “favor the monologue” Moore prefers to present a dialogue between himself and the subject he’s interviewing (Grindon 10). This is seen in the way he continually inserts himself in his film, confronting subjects directly. Instead of positioning his interviewees in an authoritative light, he often shares the screen with them, challenging that power by displaying his own, using an open dialogue to dispute their political ideologies or “manipulate them into a revealing confession” (Grindon 10). Grindon describes how his pervasive on-screen influence helps to “frame the contending interviews” while creating “the unified voice” of his intended narrative (10).
Tonally, the film is a mixture of reprehensible media, frightening messages, and intentional hilarity. Moore throws a large amount of information at the viewer at a rapid pace, using a blend of talking head interviews, stock footage, and animation to drive his point home. The most powerful scenes in the film however, are the sobering moments of reflection and grief which show the consequences of gun violence in their cruelest form. In one instance, Moore displays compassion for the school principal of Buell Elementary school who experienced the sheer horror of holding a six-year-old girl in her arms as she bled out after being shot by another six-year-old child.
Alternatively, Briley questions the ethical motivation of using the massacre of Columbine as “a vehicle to investigate violence in contemporary America” (1144). While Moore is certainly using a tragedy to his advantage as a centerpiece for his argument and the narrative drive of the film, it could be argued that the involvement of Columbine was necessary to stir the desired emotional response from the film’s viewers. Documentaries don’t often show inconsequential events or focus on unemotional subject matter, there are typically driven by a need to promote a social message or record remarkable people and ideas. In Moore’s case, the shooting at Columbine High School was an unfortunate and terrible incident that also stood as damning evidence of larger systemic issues in our nation.
The method by which Moore conducts his investigation is hardly restrained or scholarly; it is largely based on anecdotes and shaped by the director’s political ideology, with little attempt to remain unbiased. Documentaries are sometimes misunderstood as a structured look at the world that is much closer in mode and content to non-fiction research than the fabricated mythology of Hollywood films, yet this notion is ill-founded. Documentaries are dramatic retellings of true events seen through the literal and figurative lens of its filmmaker. While some directors hide their bias more than others, bias exists from the moment camera begins recording. The way information is captured, edited, and arranged on screen is entirely dictated by the choices of the documentary crew. All directors, from John Grierson to Jean Rouch, hold an unavoidable influence over their work that governs how the film will be produced and polished. Moore just embraces it, loudly and unapologetically, as a “shameless exhibitionist who cannot resist making himself the focal point of his film” (Briley 1146).
While Briley initially remarks that Moore’s points are “simplistic and undeveloped,” his passion for the subject clearly incites a feeling of urgency and invites discussion amongst its viewers. Briley recognizes this intensity as well and later admits that Moore’s insights on “the intersection between class and race may lead [the country] into a valuable dialogue regarding which class is really perpetuating conflict and suffering in America” (1146). A national dialogue must develop in order for change to occur, a notion Moore would surely agree upon given the controversial nature of his documentary. It seems as though he wants people to support it, to oppose it vehemently, to argue against him – to react in any way possible, as long as a dialogue is taking place.
For it is when we stop talking and abandon attempts to reform issues of gun violence that the memories of Columbine and countless other shootings (Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas) blend together into a single throbbing incomprehensible tragedy, a bleeding American wound that seems impossible to stitch. Moore’s directing style may seem crass and heavy handed at times, but this same hand is trying desperately to wake up its viewers and force them to feel something towards what they’re ingesting. Moore is unconventional, but it is has made his film’s popularity, controversy, and relevancy carry on till today, where people still search for an answer to the question Moore’s work poses: “Where do we go from here?”
Alpers, Philip, Amélie Rossetti and Daniel Salinas. 2015. United States — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law. Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney. GunPolicy.org, 6 November.
Briley, Ron. “Bowling for Columbine Review.” The Journal of American History 90.3 (2003): 1144-1146. Print.
Patrick Finn. “Bowling for Columbine.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 33.1 (2003): 65-66. Print.
Leger Grindon. “Q & A: Poetics of the Documentary Film Interview.” The Velvet Light Trap 60 (2007): 4-12. Print.