Bowling for Columbine (Special Edition) Review
Bowling for Columbine is the most recent documentary from the hands of Michael Moore, known previously for Roger and Me, The Awful Truth and TV Nation on screen, and books such as Downsize This! and Stupid White Men. His profile has been steadily rising since Roger and Me first hit the screen, and this documentary led to an Oscar win, more controversy and an even stronger identity for Mr Moore. Bowling for Columbine takes a look at America's gun culture in the wake of the April 1999 tragedy that struck Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, when two disgruntled students pulled out guns and killed a number of their schoolmates and one teacher. It also discusses a later incident in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan, where a 6 year-old brought a gun to school and killed one of his classmates. Both of these incidents received world media coverage, and both led Americans to step up the debate about gun control. For Michael Moore, the incidents provoked a need to question why Americans seem to use the guns they own so much more than other countries. Whether for his own self-glorification, or whether for more altruistic reasons (and this will always be hotly debated by people wanting to either back or attack Moore without question), the documentary examines interesting issues and opens up the floor for debate. It leads a viewer to think about the issue, the most valuable result a documentary can have.
Moore spends a good amount of time in the film interviewing people as diverse as the Michigan Militia (Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the Oklahoma bombings, were members), Marilyn Manson, disgruntled teens in a gaming arcade, university professors, and the Chairman of the National Rifle Association, Charlton Heston. There is also a lot of humour used (including satirical cartoons) in order to get across the central message of the film: that something out there (possibly fear) has made America a society where there are a disproportionate number of gun murders. Music plays a strong role also, with songs such as the Beatles' Happiness Is a Warm Gun used to provide the background to montages of various people with their weapons. And this is just one example; Moore is very good at what he does, using his activist tendencies as well as his filmmaking art to try and display a foolishness he sees in others. Now, whether the viewer agrees with him or not is another thing.
In amongst the clever montages designed to display folly as seen by the director/writer, there are some genuinely touching moments. The footage taken from security cameras at Columbine High School during its most terrifying moments is creepy, fascinating and ghoulish (to say the least), especially when brought together with the audio recordings of calls to the emergency services on the day... including one from the father of one of the killers. Moore also shows a more tender side when speaking to survivors of Columbine, or to members of the community who were also hit hard by the incident. Well... except the PR representative of Lockheed Martin, local missile manufacturer and the main employer in the area. I have to say that it's during segments like the interview with the Lockheed Martin guy where Moore loses my support somewhat. While I have no particular love of weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, I also don't believe that having your parents employed by such a company would make you more likely to think weapons were a valid means to tackle any situation. My personal view, of course.
And Moore makes these sorts of connections a fair bit. In one montage we learn of America's long history of political 'interventions' in other countries, generally taking the form of selling weapons to military insurgents, assisting in plots to assassinate foreign leaders, and instigating regime changes that removed democratically-elected governments. However, other Western countries are also guilty of political meddling and arms dealing... and yet these other countries still do not have the levels of violence currently being seen in America. The main argument Moore threads through the documentary is that Americans are being fed a steady stream of fear by their media and by their politicians as well as via their history (referencing race and the white fear of blacks in both the slavery years and also during civil rights). This fear, he believes, has led Americans to not only find comfort in their 'Right to Bear Arms', but also to actually use the firearms they do own, often without too much thought of the consequences.
The primary comparator Moore uses is Canada, a country with fairly high gun ownership (he quotes the figure as 10 million households and 7 million guns) yet an extremely small fraction of the gun violence seen by its closest neighbour. Although he cannot truly identify the cultural differences that make this the case, we see how many Canadians leave their front doors unlocked, have a quick look at Canadian news broadcasts versus American ones and also namecheck the welfare state and how that may influence things. It's hard for an observer to really draw a firm conclusion about the differences between Canada and America from this documentary, but at least it gives a starting point from which to research a little more fully.
My main concern with the documentary is precisely that point – namely, that it's fascinating, but it only really touches the surface. Moore is a master of making his point, and some have argued on a variety of Internet sites that the facts presented in Bowling for Columbine are simply not quite right and that this documentary is more of a publicity vehicle for Moore and his left-wing views. I have a problem with both sides of that argument. Certainly, Moore has a very forceful personality and knows exactly what he's doing with emotive shots and interviews. He knows how editing can change how a person comes across – and in many cases it's hard to get the truth about what happened and when unless you were actually there. So I don't know which facts are absolute, which rallies Heston went to and what he said at them – on such points I'm supposed to trust Moore. And Moore tells me not to trust the media... so I'm left with some interesting issues that can't be doubted (America does have a lot of gun ownership and gun crime; American news media is full of horror stories; there have been a number of incidents of children getting hold of guns and using them; other countries have high gun ownership without as much gun crime). Even if I don't know the exact numbers involved, I am left questioning why America is the way it is about guns – and maybe that's one layer of the documentary. Some people will walk away without changing their minds, some people will accept Moore's propaganda and some will accept the gun lobby's. Some will be left with questions and will use that uncertainty to learn more and become more active on issues that matter to them.
So, onto some of the famous moments of the documentary. The film opens with Moore in a Michigan bank that offers new customers a rifle for opening a specific type of account. Very strange to most of us watching, and it's that strangeness that Moore uses to set the tone of what's to follow. There's a variety of interviews, the one with James Nichols being especially bizarre (the guy seems to blame his ex-wife for many of the world's woes and keeps a .44 Magnum under his pillow, but hey, at least he agrees that weapons grade plutonium should be restricted). Matt Stone of South Park fame gives an interesting interview, having actually attended Columbine High... and along with Marilyn Manson (partially blamed by the media during the whole Columbine incident, as the culprits had listened to his music) discusses the alienation of today's children and the need to listen to them more.
There are other short interviews included, many of which are very interesting – but the above three are the key ones. That is, apart from the final interview with Charlton Heston, of course. Moore finds Heston's house and asks for an interview. To his credit, Heston immediately sets a time the next day when he will see and speak to Moore. The interview (and we will never really know if edits have affected this or not) is a little disturbing as Heston mentions the violent history of America and 'multi-ethnicity' as reasons for gun crime. In the end, Moore asks Heston to apologise to the communities of both Littleton and Flint for leading local NRA rallies in both locations soon after the respective shootings. Heston walks out.
Returning to 'true activist mode', Moore also takes two of the students wounded in the Columbine shootings to Kmart HQ in Troy, Michigan and successfully manages to get this enormous chain of stores to agree to stop selling handgun ammunition. It's an interesting display of how activism can work without the need for millions of protestors and with only the backing of some TV cameras and a high-profile campaigner like Michael Moore. Although I take a slightly cynical approach to this – that is, the use of children to emotionally blackmail a company – the children involved took comfort from their ability to have a positive effect on the world, so in my view overall it's a Good Thing™.
Michael Moore is very good at taking incidents and bringing in a personal aspect; the 6 year-old shooting took place in Flint, where Moore was brought up and which was also the background for his previous documentary Roger and Me. Adding this personal angle makes the director/writer more of a part of the events he's describing and more emotionally involved, for sure. It's another example of the masterful way Moore has framed his polemic within a worthwhile documentary that looks at an important subject. There's been criticism that the film is more about Moore than about guns, and yet, if it had been made by a less well-known documentarian, would it really have achieved so wide a distribution, publicity and audience?
In the end I found Bowling for Columbine a fascinating piece of work for a variety of reasons. It made me think about its subject matter, for a long time and from all sorts of angles. It didn't present neatly packaged answers, even when it tried to – just discussion points. I can appreciate the skill evinced in putting such a piece together, the interviews, montages, cartoon segments and even the choice of music and the voice-overs. It's a good bit of film-making even if you don't agree with the views, or with its categorisation as a documentary. For me, it was a thought-provoking overview of guns and gun crime in America, with injections of both humour and stark sad reality, both of which helped to establish the view of the documentary-maker.
Bowling for Columbine is a documentary piece and uses a variety of different filming approaches for different segments, including archival footage. The main feature is filmed in 16:9 widescreen and is given an anamorphic transfer on this DVD. However, the special features on the second disc, mostly originating from TV broadcasts, are all presented in 4:3 (standard full-screen).
Because of the various different filming techniques, use of archival footage, etc., the video quality is a little varied but as you might expect with a recent DVD transfer such as this, it's pretty damn clean and tidy. The colours are generally vivid and real, with flesh tones looking right throughout, as do the darker colours. I didn't notice any real problems with artifacting or graininess – it's a very nice picture transfer of a recent film.
The sound here was recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1 but probably didn't need to be, as stereo would almost certainly have sufficed for all of the audio in the film, which after all consists primarily of narration and dialogue; the added features of 5.1 are barely used, if at all. However, the sound is crisp, even when Moore is conducting interviews along streets, a testament to the sound editors' professionalism in balancing out background noises. There were no points where I couldn't make out what was being said, so a very satisfying audio transfer overall.
There are also English subtitles for the hard of hearing through the whole film, although unfortunately these do not continue through into the extras on disc 2. This is a real shame for a DVD with such good, interesting special features.
Menus & Extras
The menus are fun and colourful, taking their theme and imagery from, well, bowling (with menu selections printed on bowling pins and individual menu transitions involving full bowling animations). Access times are speedy throughout, even with these flashy transitions.
Extras on this DVD are plentiful, unlike the previous Region 2 release of this film. The first is an introduction by Michael Moore thanking people for watching the DVD, stating that he doesn't appear on the commentary track because he feels the documentary speaks for itself, and encouraging viewers to get out there and start getting involved in the debate. This small segment lasts around 3 minutes.
As the commentary track doesn't include Moore because he feels he really made his point in the main film, instead it contains the observations of a variety of Moore's production assistants, interns and receptionists who worked on the film in one capacity or another. This sounds like a unique special feature and would indeed have been a better ploy if his staff actually had more to say about the film... instead we're treated to a lot of self-appreciative laughter and inside jokes. Mind you, there are a couple of interesting moments, such as when they're discussing the footage of Columbine and how they reacted to it when they first saw it... and also when they mention the fact that there was a 6-hour cut of the documentary! (And yet there are no deleted scenes on the DVD at all. Hmm.) In general though it's not a particularly intriguing commentary track – luckily this is more than made up for by the other on-disc special features.
Just three weeks after his controversial Oscar acceptance speech, Moore has recorded a 15-minute comment about how this speech came about and how it felt to win an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. Because he wasn't allowed to include the actual footage of his Oscar moment (because the Academy refused to allow him the rights to it), he instead has to repeat what he can remember of his speech. It's quite an interesting insight into this controversial moment – and includes Moore's generous comment on the booing he received as 'the noise of democracy'.
There's also a 25-minute follow-up segment called Return to Denver/Littleton which follows Moore as he makes a speech to the University of Denver six months after the release of Bowling for Columbine. I found this interesting, although I wished I could have seen the full speech he made instead of merely selected highlights. He's a good speaker and makes his points well, adding further commentary about the Columbine incident within his speech – mainly about the police response (or lack thereof) to the tragedy. There's a brief glimpse of the question-and-answer session that followed the speech and then we see a quick clip of Moore himself being interviewed followed by footage of the subsequent book-signing for Stupid White Men. The book-signing is especially interesting as a Columbine High student thanks Moore for the film and tells him how her friend was the one in the white T-shirt he had mentioned during his speech (a boy who, while the police waited outside for several hours after the shooters had committed suicide, himself made several trips inside the school building to assist wounded students). In a genuinely touching moment, Moore gets up and gives her a hug.
Moore also appeared on the Charlie Rose Show and the full half-hour episode is also included here. It's a relatively interesting interview with Moore but there's little spark between them; it's more of a fairly pleasant conversation about the film between the two men, with the occasional counterpoint by Rose. This doesn't make it dull, however; it's just not quite as interesting as the interview with Michael Moore by former Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. Lockhart was Press Secretary under President Clinton and gives Moore a very good interview as part of the US Comedy Arts Festival. This second interview is over 20 mintes long, and together with the Denver University speech they add a lot more to the film than the commentary does.
As for shorter extras, the full video of the Marilyn Manson hit Fight Song is included. Despite not being a big Manson fan I quite enjoyed the video, though I don't think I'd have missed it had it not been included on the disc either. The original trailer for Bowling for Columbine is also included; as I don't remember catching it when the film came out, I was glad to get the chance to see it as part of this DVD package. Not much to say about it though, except that it gives a fairly accurate feel for the actual film. Also included is a photo gallery of the crew from the film... it's a nice mix of photos, although might not add a huge amount to your enjoyment of the film itself!
In addition, there's a selection of DVD-ROM content, designed for Windows 98 and upwards. However, if you don't have a DVD-ROM drive or if you're a Macintosh user, never fear... all of the content is fully available on the documentary website both in HTML and in PDF (Adobe Acrobat format) for download. The DVD-ROM section primarily includes a Teacher's Guide, offering lesson plans, ideas to stimulate debate, essay titles, and groupwork ideas. It makes good reading whether you're a teacher or not and is a definite worthwhile addition to the disc.
Bowling for Columbine is unquestionably a fascinating documentary that raises questions about the levels of fear, gun ownership and gun usage in the USA. Michael Moore has put together a film that clearly conveys his views on the various subjects raised; his use of interviews, music, humour and archival footage are masterfully edited together to make every point. There will always be some controversy over how he presents his supporting statistics, and some of the points he makes occasionally seem slightly belaboured for my tastes – but that doesn't detract from the fact that it's a highly interesting, thought-provoking piece of filmwork and well worth watching.