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'Bowling for Columbine'

Moore often hits the mark in 'Bowling for Columbine'

Friday, November 01, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Most of what Michael Moore's detractors say about him is true. The liberal gadfly in ball cap and blue jeans needs a ruthless editor to prune his self-indulgences. He contradicts himself with amazing regularity. He's an agent provocateur willing and able to manipulate a fact. His ambush interviews can seem unfair.

'Bowling For Columbine'

RATING: R for some violent images and language.

DIRECTOR: Michael Moore.

WEB SITE: www.bowlingfor


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The fact that many of the same arguments can be made about certain regulars on Fox News Channel is beside the point. Moore's work tends to be slapdash and scattershot, the equivalent of throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

The thing is, a lot of it does. In his potent documentary now at the Manor Theater, "Bowling for Columbine," about gun violence in America, Moore proposes some possible answers. But "Bowling for Columbine" is a vital film because it asks a question we all need to ponder: Why do Americans shoot each other to death in such alarming numbers?

The Beltway sniper drew wall-to-wall media attention for picking off people in the suburbs. But that death toll was minuscule compared to the ongoing bloodshed that occurs every day in the nation's cities.

Ironically, one of Moore's arguments supports the National Rifle Association credo that guns don't kill people, people kill people. Moore, a longtime NRA member who learned marksmanship as a teenager, says Canada has a healthy supply of guns but a fraction of the number of shooting deaths per capita as the United States.

Moore tries to make the case that Americans live in a climate of fear, fostered in great measure by the corporate media, which realizes profits from feeding our paranoia and reinforcing our racial prejudices.

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that TV news shamelessly plays on your fears. You know: "What you don't know about waxy yellow buildup could kill you." It's the logical progression from advertising, the raison d'etre of television, which works on your insecurities to sell you things you don't need. But plenty of other influences stoke our anger, from the poisonous political culture to the Me First ethic permeating society.

"Bowling for Columbine" suffers from Moore's penchant for going off on tangents. He examines the case of a little girl in his hometown of Flint, Mich., who was killed by a 6-year-old classmate with a gun he found in the house where he was staying. By the time Moore ambushes Dick Clark in a van in Hollywood (Clark owns a theme restaurant where the boy's mother worked), we know he's strayed way off topic.

But for all of Moore's flaws, elements of his filmmaking formula work spectacularly. He makes documentaries, but he never forgets to be entertaining. His bemused skepticism, well-honed sense of absurdity and guerrilla tactics produce interviews in which he gives corporate types enough rope to hang themselves with their own witless verbiage.

He interviews the clueless brother of Terry Nichols, convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing. He visits a bank that gives away guns as a premium for starting an account, asking whether having so many guns in a bank is prudent.

But just as we are settling in for more of Moore's jocular outrageousness, he socks us in the gut with a shot of the second hijacked airliner slamming into the World Trade Center, followed immediately by actual footage from Columbine High School security cameras (the movie takes its name from the fact that the Columbine shooters spent the morning of the massacre at the bowling alley).

Moore accompanies two Columbine survivors to Kmart, where they ask company officials to stop selling ammunition. He interviews an increasingly flustered NRA president Charlton Heston.

After all this, you may love "Bowling for Columbine" or you may hate it. But you can't ignore it -- and the questions it raises.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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