Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Bowling For Columbine

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE

7/10

Canada (Canada/USA) 2002 : Michael Moore : 120-123 mins

Entertainingly provocative documentary about an especially shocking symptom of the USAs current ills the nations terrible record of gun-related deaths. While seldom subtle, Bowling For Columbine is undeniably effective: fast-moving, despite a two-hour-plus running-time, freewheeling and surprisingly wide-ranging, the films starting point is the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on 20th April, 1999. Moore examines the possible causes for the tragedy from violent films and nu-metal music (Moore interviews scapegoat Marilyn Manson, who proves a surprisingly articulate and sympathetic folk-devil) to ten-pin bowling: the title refers to the killers attendance at a practice session for the sport on the morning of their homicidal frenzy.

As he travels across America (with a detour to the relatively peaceable Canada) the writer-director is front-and-centre of pretty much every segment its probably no coincidence that Moore and Nick Broomfield, the two most prominent cinema documentarists, eschew the sober, orthodox approach of, say, a D A Pennebaker or a Frederick Wiseman, and instead insist on inserting themselves forcibly into their subject matter. The documentarist, essentially, becomes the story.

Moores brash, confrontational style won’t be to every taste but Bowling For Columbine ultimately avoids the trap of coming over as an elaborate ego-trip for its crusading protagonist. Moore soon establishes himself as informed and well-intentioned, and, crucially, in possession of a sharp sense of humour. There are many highlights along the way, but Moores climactic confrontation with National Rifle Association spokesman Charlton Heston is the most powerful of the lot whatever audience sympathy one might have for the aged, visibly frail Heston as he comes under sustained badgering from Moore dissipates instantly as the legendary actor blames the USs gun horrors on the countrys mixed ethnicity.

The Heston scene is remarkably effective even if Moore insists on taking things at least one step too far by then including shots of him leaving a photograph of a murdered schoolgirl outside Hestons front door, then plodding mournfully out of shot. No proper documentarist would include such material but Moore revels in his ordinary-Joe persona. And, given the tabloidisation of Americas media a major factor, according to Moore, behind the gun problems perhaps this blunderbuss approach is exactly whats called for, even if it is often counterproductive we could probably do without the mournfully tinkling piano that occasionally infests the soundtrack, let alone the thuddingly ironic use of Louis Armstrongs Wonderful World at the end.

As with Broomfield, there’s a distinct air of preaching to the converted about Bowling For Columbine: its hard to see pro-gun audiences flocking to hand over their dollars to receive Moores hectoring in a cinema. But the bold marketing approach employed on the film (the first documentary in decades to be selected for the Official Competition at Cannes, where it won a special award) means that, when it does pop up on the small screen (home of Moores long-running TV Nation series), it has a fighting chance of obtaining the wide exposure and impact it undoubtedly deserves.

20th October, 2002
(seen 3rd, Odeon Mansfield)

by Neil Young