It keeps happening. At the time of this writing, students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are mourning the deaths of fourteen of their classmates and three faculty members, all of whom a nineteen-year-old is accused of shooting on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018, with a legally acquired semiautomatic AR-15 rifle. Stricken and angry, the students have begun to organize, holding rallies, marching on the Florida capitol in Tallahassee, and staying on message when talking to the media. They’re baldly calling for stricter gun regulations, and they’re specifically calling out the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country and a generous benefactor to legislators who’ve opposed strengthening regulation.
In other words, little has changed since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was released in 2002. Made in the aftermath of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, where twelve students and one teacher were killed by classmates Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the film takes an expansive look at America’s obsession with guns and its impotency when it comes to dealing with gun-related violence. Whereas the massacre at Columbine captured the attention of the world to such an extent that a film released three years later still felt raw and vital, these kinds of shootings have since become horrifically commonplace. In a conservative estimate, the Washington Post recently determined that, beginning with the Columbine massacre, nearly two hundred thousand students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus. (It is wretchedly likely that this number will have increased by the time this essay goes to press.) In the United States, guns are fired at or near children attending school nine times per year.
“That a topical documentary film can remain relevant and instructive sixteen years after its release speaks to Moore’s prescience as well as to the depths of America’s moral decay.”
Revisiting Moore’s film in light of this appalling legacy, it’s remarkable how spot-on he was in his thesis. His antagonists are the same ones being called out by the Stoneman Douglas students today: the NRA, complicit government officials, and our collective cultural tolerance for living in, and subjecting our children to, pervasive fear. That a topical documentary film can remain relevant and instructive sixteen years after its release speaks to Moore’s prescience as well as to the depths of America’s moral decay. That vitality may come as a surprise to those who’ve come to know Moore primarily through his ascendancy as a political pundit—his unconventional, attention-grabbing tactics can get in the way of recognition of his achievements. But while debates around his methodology should and do persist, what is indisputable is Bowling for Columbine’s standing as a cultural landmark.
Bowling for Columbine was just the third documentary feature for Moore, after his sleeper hit Roger & Me (1989) and national temperature check while on book tour The Big One (1997), which were interspersed with two television series, the Emmy-winning TV Nation (1994–95) and The Awful Truth (1999–2000). All these projects featured Moore on camera, in his signature baseball cap, conspicuous glasses, nondescript jacket, jeans, and white sneakers, cozying up to common folk or interrogating persons in power. As modeled from the outset of that first film, he wasn’t just a defender of the working stiff—he was the working stiff. That wasn’t merely effective shtick, as Moore grew up working-class in Flint, Michigan, the son of a secretary and an autoworker. He dropped out of college to pursue independent journalism, starting a Michigan alt-weekly before serving a short, controversial stint as editor of the lefty investigative magazine Mother Jones. Moore’s on-camera persona not only reflected these bona fides, it also functioned as something of a rebuke to TV-newsmagazine-style dispatches, offering his own sneakers-and-street-smarts profile in place of a suit-and-tie 60 Minutes correspondent. And that style was matched by the substance of his progressive political ideology, which has remained relatively unchanged—despite the personal evolution and pop-cultural success that Moore has experienced.
In Moore’s films, it’s clear that he’s playing a character: the schlubby, sneaky, astute, smart-aleck, Chaplin-worthy Tramp from Flint. The character is based on the real Moore, of course, but the films isolate only those aspects that the topic at hand can utilize, broad strokes in a selective self-portrait. In Bowling for Columbine, it’s that he grew up a precocious marksman in a gun-loving state (“I couldn’t wait to go outside and shoot up the neighborhood,” he says about getting his first toy gun), and he uses footage of himself with firearms as both an admission entitling him to a critical angle on gun ownership and a sight gag. Playing a one-liner-throwing David ready to take on the next Goliath has helped Moore reach a mainstream audience. His follow-up film, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he took on President George W. Bush and post-9/11 warmongering, raked in a mind-boggling $222 million worldwide. It remains the highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history.
That kind of success can foster resentment, especially when so many documentary filmmakers struggle for solvency and distribution. Moore’s budget on Bowling for Columbine ($2.9 million) still dwarfs those of 99 percent of documentary films (the rights for the songs alone, which include the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” would eat up the entire budget of most indies). Some have found the filmmaker’s ambition to bring awareness about his issues to as wide an audience as possible to get in the way of following the norms of traditional journalism. But the fact is, Moore operates at the nexus of journalism, activism, and entertainment, and he merits evaluation from all three angles. Bowling for Columbine must also be considered on its own genre-blending terms; evaluating it strictly as journalism would be as inadequate as treating it as simple entertainment. Compare the attention given to Moore’s work with the critical reception of that of English filmmaker Adam Curtis, a similarly morally and politically convicted, iconoclastic polemicist whose editorializing methodology is generally given a freer pass. Moore’s success may invite more scrutiny, but there’s no doubting his sincerity in calling for reckoning and change in America, or his thoroughness in gathering evidence to support the need for that call.
“The thread through all this is Moore the boundary pusher, the bluntly entertaining tester of patience and defier of decorum.”
Furthermore, it’s fair to assume that Bowling for Columbine has defined the documentary form for a large section of the moviegoing population, who are likely unconcerned by its simplification of certain matters, neglect at moments to signal when it is collapsing time, and uneven sparing of its subjects. That Moore had no interest in obeying any rules, be they of documentary filmmaking or of decorum, was an asset, if anything. As was daring to call out the NRA, the American government, the news media, even Hollywood’s Moses, Charlton Heston. Moore’s appeal is rooted in his being a pugilistic everyman who’s fiendishly funny despite starring in documentaries. Perhaps above all else, Moore is a comedian. (It’s instructive that his lone foray into narrative filmmaking, the scarcely seen 1995 movie Canadian Bacon, was a John Candy comedy.) As a work of argument, Bowling for Columbine is often galvanizing, and as entertainment, it’s uniquely, enduringly dynamic.
Moore is an ace at writing for his own voice, and from front to back, he delivers both rueful couplets on ruined American dreams and witheringly sardonic summations of American hypocrisy and greed. In Bowling for Columbine’s tonally assured, self-contained precredits sequence, he is given a rifle on camera simply for opening an account at Michigan’s North Country Bank and Trust. “Well, here’s my first question,” he says to the employee, gun in hand. “Do you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?” We’re less than three minutes into the film, and its brazen balancing act between farce and rage, sincerity and mockery, has already been established. It also allows for the free-for-all sequencing that follows, progressing from Moore’s voice-over biographical sketch to his name-dropping of his fellow Michigander Heston, complete with a cut from the rifle-firing thespian to the rifle-firing filmmaker—savagely foreshadowing the film’s final sequence—before alighting on an official’s unintentionally hilarious account of a gun-toting dog, on the way to in-the-field interviews with members of the Michigan Militia and wild-eyed James Nichols, the brother of convicted domestic terrorist Terry Nichols. There’s a lot of movie here. In both a formal and tonal sense, Moore is establishing a culture in which anything goes, any texture or method belongs. And we haven’t even gotten to the caustic American historical montages scored to the aforementioned “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the foulmouthed animated section conflating American racism with gun ownership, or the Roger & Me–like petitioning-the-king scene at Kmart’s corporate offices starring two Columbine survivors. Such ecumenism means that, as a viewer, you’re always being pursued; every route to your heart, mind, and conscience is being traversed. The thread through all this, whether he’s on-screen or providing dependably wry narration, is Moore the boundary pusher, the bluntly entertaining tester of patience and defier of decorum.
Moore’s subject lends itself to his form. The wild ride Bowling for Columbine takes us on tracks with America’s off-the-rails relationship with guns. It’s historically defined, it’s culturally entrenched, it’s winding and disturbing, and it keeps going. In fact, film title and news peg notwithstanding, the circumstances of Columbine are covered relatively early in the film, which lets the surveillance footage and 911 calls play without commentary. Moore spends the film’s second half dwelling on the tragedy’s aftermath and zooming out to consider the various potential causes for America’s mass-shooting problem. This includes a visit with Marilyn Manson (at one point scapegoated for having been a favorite of the killers), a trip to Canada to investigate why a neighboring gun-friendly country doesn’t share the U.S.’s homicidal tendencies, and a damning montage of television news’ fearmongering and race baiting, the culmination of a sequence in which Moore persuasively argues for the interdependence of gun violence and racism, the NRA and the KKK, paranoia and aggression, punitive policies regarding the poor and hysteria around crime. Then comes the story of a six-year-old boy who shot and killed his six-year-old classmate at school in Mount Morris Township, Michigan.
It’s this last incident, which happened several months after Columbine and within miles of Moore’s hometown, that preoccupies the final chapter of the film. Moore visits with the children’s still-stricken principal. He traces the story back to the child assailant’s mother, who was forced by the government to work hours from home at two minimum-wage jobs, one at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, in order to repay her so-called welfare debt, necessitating that she leave her son in the care of nearby relatives. This drives Moore to confront Dick Clark himself about these governmental policies, feebly pleading as the door of the TV legend’s minivan slides closed. (Imagine the production hours that went into timing and pulling off that ambush, with so little chance of it yielding anything satisfying. Only genuine emotion can push things that hard, that far.) And the shooting is also a driving force behind the curtain-closing exchange with Heston, the dramatics of which are well remembered now, though less so the specifics of the cause that fueled Moore’s tenacity. Heston isn’t ambushed but rather invites the film crew into his home, twenty-four hours after Moore first showed up at his door. The NRA president proceeds to supply plenty of rope for hanging himself, without much prodding from Moore, obscenely attributing America’s singular mass-shooting problem to its racial diversity. But Moore keeps going, because what really rankles is the way Heston chose to speak on behalf of the NRA near both Columbine and Mount Morris Township shortly after their tragedies. The filmmaker is not after a sound bite anymore—he wants to shame. Even after Heston walks away from the camera and crew, Moore follows, brandishing a photo of the slain six-year-old child. In a fashion, it’s an overstep, and reads like grandstanding. But it’s also a sincere expression of rage. Heston and the NRA had gone way too far, so Moore went out there too.
Somehow, even the unthinkable tragedy of a six-year-old being shot at school would be not just replicated but eclipsed in the years after Bowling for Columbine’s release. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which twenty first graders were killed, along with six adults, was ten years away, a tragedy that Bowling for Columbine, for all its prescience, did nothing to prevent, any more than the event itself managed to bring about anything in the way of gun regulation or NRA reform, or to cut down on political opportunism and profiteering. We like to trot out documentaries that have made a measurable difference in the world, such as Blackfish’s effect on SeaWorld’s policies and bottom line, or The Thin Blue Line’s role in helping to exonerate an innocent man. But Bowling for Columbine shouldn’t be judged by this measure, not when the intractability of the issues it grappled with was its very subject; their enduring intractability only underscores the importance of calling it out. And not when its wildly committed, grab-bag audacity remains so worth revisiting, referencing, and arguing over. To date, the most persuasive argument against the deep shame of our nation’s ongoing problem with gun violence remains a 2002 mainstream comedy-documentary. As with the filmmaking itself: whatever it takes.