Moore strikes out in `Bowling'

Investigation of gun violence is shallow and one-sided

Movie review

October 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

**

Apparently, Americans want firebrand pundits and weathermen to be humorous endomorphs, as if their heftiness will cushion both their bad news and their stridency. Michael Moore's latest documentary, Bowling for Columbine, is a direct reflection of its maker: sloppy and overblown. Trying to explore the roots of gun violence in America, it puts out a set of hypotheses that would seem hazy even to Moore's fans if not for the comforting yet chaotic expansiveness of Moore's own presence.

Moore wants to be a mixture of Tom Paine and Walt Whitman. He certainly looks as if he contains multitudes - that's part of his appeal. But rather than polemics and poetry, his work comes down to attitude. It exploits the good-heartedness of anyone who believes in the innate virtue of the common man and the probable corruption of corporate men.

The title comes from a chilling, absurd fact: The two boys who committed the Columbine High School massacre took a bowling class that morning. As the movie ambles from one horror story or liberal-radical bugaboo to another, it portrays the propensity of our citizens to kill each other as a result of media-fueled paranoia, diminished social programs and an aggressive foreign policy.

These threads connect only at the edges, as additions to Moore's ongoing broadside at the ruthless self-interest of industrial America.

Taking off from Barry Glassner's book The Culture of Fear, Moore attacks mainstream media for manipulating Americans' fears, notably of anarchy and poverty. But Glassner argues above all for clearheadedness. Moore uses scare tactics to lather up art-house audiences.

The movie gets into full gear with a montage of America's foreign-policy misadventures brutally summarized and set, with hamhanded irony, to the sound of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World."

There are also pseudo-courageous confrontations with celebrities, such as Moore's attempt to ambush-interview Dick Clark because a chain restaurant bearing his name employs members of a "welfare to work" program that, according to Moore, caused one 6-year-old to kill another in his home city of Flint, Mich.

And there's the demonizing of American presidents - Bush and Clinton - for, among other things, deploying super-weapons and doing more than anyone else (in Moore's view) to create an atmosphere of violence.

The two points usually raised in Moore's defense are that he gives left-wingers a popular rallying voice and that he brings up issues otherwise ignored. But is the adolescent, us-vs.-them emotionalism of Moore's approach to progressivism - with its low-grade Gotcha! interviews and caricatures - preferable to Rush Limbaugh's right-wing name-calling?

And how much credit should Moore get for tackling the subject of gun violence when he deals with it impressionistically at best? He presents himself as a lifetime NRA member but never explains why he still belongs.

Bowling for Columbine is more exciting than most bad movies. It couldn't be more timely, and the spark it sets off in the audience demonstrates how much ground the studios ceded to television when they stopped trying to do topical material. But rather than raise the level of debate in this country, the movie sinks to it.

Moore thinks of himself as a populist force. We'd be better off if he saw himself as a radical Steve Allen or Dave Letterman. He does have a TV humorist's divining rod for locating real-life looniness, such as a Michigan bank that gives customers a free rifle for opening CDs, and a funny talk-show host's talent for keeping a conversation going.

At one point he interviews Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols' brother, James, who confides that he has a .44 Magnum loaded under his pillow; after a pause, Moore tells him, "Everybody says that" - the perfect response, it turns out, to propel Nichols into his bedroom.

Moore's displays of sympathy to people he likes are self-serving, and his bullying of people he pegs as enemies is revolting. When he escorts two Columbine survivors who still carry Kmart bullets in their bodies to the store's corporate headquarters, Moore treats the Kmart representatives with such obvious disdain and suspicion that he cheats the audience of sharing a moment of common humanity when the company decides to take ammo off its shelves.

The emphasis is all on Moore's accomplishment, not on the company's humane response.

The movie is strongest - simultaneously serious and funny - when Moore interviews people he has no easy read on, such as the alienated young Michigan man proud of being near the top of something, even if it's a list of guys most likely to set off a bomb.

But you weary of Moore's intellectual laziness. He's so anxious to give us his version of the Big Picture, he doesn't follow through on issues as basic as gun control. And he's so intent on establishing easy rooting interests that he doesn't listen to anyone on the other side of the fence.

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