It's not easy being a liberal these days. Dubya's ramming his war on terrorism and obsession with war against Iraq through Congress and the United Nations. The Senate's most vaunted unreconstructed liberal, Minnesota's Paul Wellstone, died tragically two weeks ago in a plane crash. And one of the left's previous champions, writer Christopher Hitchens, has said he no longer believes in the left and signaled its death knell. (The jury's still out on whether the left will actually miss Hitchens, but that's another debate entirely.)
And then there's gruff but lovable old Michael Moore, who is as maddening as he is hilarious in his films (Roger and Me), TV shows (The Awful Truth) and writings (Stupid White Men). Moore is like a progressive bull in a china shop, a provocateur crashing into ideas and special-interest groups as he slaps together his own version of liberalism. As frumpy in his thinking as he is in his attire -- perennially untucked shirts, creatively sculpted facial hair and what-day-is-it baseball cap -- Moore gets by with an undeniable wit and a flair for comedy and self-promotion that has some rightfully calling him the left's Rush Limbaugh.
All of which he proves, once again, with the rollercoaster ride that is his latest film, Bowling for Columbine -- an odyssey of ideas that explore America's love/hate relationship with guns. Inspired by the tragic Columbine shootings of 1999, Bowling for Columbine shows Moore at his best and worst. His works are like promising rough drafts -- does anybody actually edit this guy? -- and this film is no different. And while even supportive lefties must cringe at some of his pretzel logic, they must admit the man raises great points and knows how to get a laugh. As a comedy, Bowling for Columbine is unsurpassed this year. As a serious work of intellectual thought, well ... .
Through a series of vignettes, asides, interviews and outright grandstanding, Moore as abstract artist paints an America that has been forced by myriad factors into an obsession with guns. Himself a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, Moore spreads out countless examples of how we have decided (almost through no fault of our own?) that, as the Beatles sing at one point, happiness is a warm gun.
We're frazzled into a constant state of fear by the media. We're ordered to defend our Second Amendment right to bear arms by right-wing politicians. We're economically disenfranchised by the government and corporate America. We're pressured to succeed in the light of abject failure by our suburban-sprawl school systems. Personal responsibility -- that most foreign phrase among liberals in general and Moore in particular -- doesn't even take a back seat on the bus; it never gets on the bus.
No, he leaves that up to folks like poor Charlton Heston, the Hollywood legend and NRA president whom Moore sandbags and sucker-punches in a final-act interview that is just as ugly a car wreck to watch as any scene from another previous target, the TV show Cops.
Moore is at his best when he uncovers the silliness and paradoxes in our society, as he does in an opening sequence where he goes into a bank to open up an account solely to get a free gun. (The bank, one official boasts, has 500 guns -- mostly rifles -- stored in its vault.) "Do you think it's a little dangerous to hand out guns in a bank?" he asks in his voice-over narration.
That's funny, funny stuff. But what's the point?
The movie reaches a surprising peak in an interview with "shock rocker" (a media-created label if there ever was) Marilyn Manson, a favorite punching bag of conservatives who believe listening to music makes killers out of kids. Half in costume for an upcoming show, Manson calmly explains how the media and corporations' conspiracy of fear (as an author on the subject later confirms) makes frightened consumers of us all. When Moore asks him what he'd say to the students of Columbine, Manson quickly replies, "I wouldn't say a single word to them; I would listen to what they had to say, because that is what no one has done."
But the film is also filled with needless though informative tangents. Ultimately, though there appears to be no clear point, Moore decides to do his confrontational thing by setting up (with amazing ease) the aforementioned interview with Heston. After a challenging question to Heston that obviously flusters a man who has subsequently confirmed he has Alzheimer's disease, Moore demands an apology for his appearance at rallies in cities just after gun-related tragedies had struck -- including Columbine. Sensing he's caught more in an argument than an interview, Heston politely ends the interview and shuffles away.
There stands Moore, calling out to Heston, brandishing a poster of a dead first-grade girl. Finally, he lays the photo against the house, and walks off.
If he's made some point, it, like so many others, is a little lost on me. Which is what leaves Bowling for Columbine something just short of a wasted opportunity.
- Which is mightier? Michael Moore brandishes his weapons in his latest hilarious but heavy-handed documentary, Bowling for Columbine.