With his documentary Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore proves once again that he is one of our country's most valuable gadflies, a gifted provocateur with a keen eye for the absurd. Here, his subject is gun violence in America, but the more he travels hither and yon stalking his target, the more he comes across as just another "stupid white man" often taking unnecessary potshots and never, ever taking prisoners.
Prompted by the Columbine High School murders, Moore begins a quest to discover the reasons behind America's bloodthirstiness. And he uncovers a lot of good material, exposing it in his customary guerrilla style. Dressed in jeans and his signature cap, and armed with a mobile camera crew, Moore swoops on his unsuspecting targets with the chutzpah of a modern-day Joshua at the walls of Jericho. And sometimes, the walls do crumble a bit, as they did in The Big One for Nike and that company's practice of exploiting child labor.
Likewise, in Bowling for Columbine, Moore's hectoring of various Kmart flacks results in some astonishing concessions from the company. Such a victory might have made a logical place to end his film, but Bowling for Columbine goes on (at two hours, it's at least a half-hour too long) and instead wraps up with Moore's depressing interview with NRA prez Charlton Heston. One can only wonder whether it was a moment of hubris or senility that prompted Heston to invite Moore to his home for an interview. But once Heston realizes that he's been ambushed on his own turf, he abruptly cancels the interview and exits the room, leaving Moore behind to behave like the aggrieved party. You really have to wonder about a movie that makes you feel sympathy for Charlton Heston.
For every fascinating sequence in the documentary ' like the one at a bank where Moore gets a free rifle for opening up a new account ' there are others that make us squirm with discomfort, as when Moore ambushes Dick Clark for comments regarding a tangential topic. Often repeated throughout the film is the factoid that more bombs were dropped on Kosovo on April 20, 1999 (the day of the Columbine shootings), than on any other day of the war. It's one of those sweeping statements that sounds good but means less and less the more one thinks about it. Viewers should also be warned that the movie contains disturbing real-time footage from the security monitors in the Columbine school library and a montage of American foreign policy disasters that ends by blaming Osama bin Laden's deeds on the CIA.
Perhaps I'd have fewer misgivings about Moore and his strategies were he not so great an entertainer. Bowling for Columbine is indeed fun and informative, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Moore's premise ' that America's "culture of fear" sparks our gun-crazy society ' is a good idea worth pursuing. It's just that he needn't always do it with a figurative howitzer disguised as a camera.