Alan A. Stone
Directed by Michael Moore
<0.500000><15.000000><1>Produced by Michael Moore,
Kathleen<12.000000> Glynn, and Jim<12.000000> Czarnecki<12.000000>
on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you. With those lines Michael
Moore scolded the president and stole the headlines at this years
lackluster Oscars. The Academy had already toned down its annual
event because the Iraq war was in the offing, and with bombs dropping
on Baghdad at ceremony time, the celebrities opposed to the war
were keeping a low profile. When it was announced that Bowling
for Columbine, Moores documentary on Americas
culture of fear and gun violence, had won the Oscar, the Hollywood
audience gave him a standing ovation. Moore invited the other
documentary nominees to join him on the podium, emphasized their
collective dedication to nonfiction, and derided the fictional
reasons for the war and the fictions of orange alerts
and duct tape. As he scolded Bush the orchestra began
to play, and one could hear boos which apparently came from the
balcony and the stagehands. Most of the Hollywood dignitaries
seemed bemused but some even stood again and applauded. After
a commercial break, master of ceremonies Steve Martin was ready
with a wisecrack: Everyones getting along just fine
backstage, the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk
of his limo. -80.000000>2>
Moore was holding forth at a press conference and enjoying his
moment of glory. Unapologetic about injecting war and politics
into the Oscars, he shrugged off comparisons to Vanessa Redgraves
1978 pro-PLO speech and denied any concerns about a Hollywood
backlash. He insisted that most of the audience and the majority
of Americans were with him against Bushs war. Unfortunately,
none of the press asked Moore about his own fictionsthe
ways in which he had doctored truth in Bowling
concerns on this score had been raised months before in the mainstream
press. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott dismissed some
of Moores claims as too preposterous to merit discussion.
For example in reciting a litany of American sins in foreign policy
and covert actions that led to violence Moore shows the first
airliner crashing into the World Trade Center and asserts that
Osama Bin Laden used his CIA training to kill three thousand people
on 9/11. Many people accept as fact that at some point in time
the CIA became involved with Bin Laden. But Moore suggests that
the CIA trained Bin Laden as a terrorist and that he used that
training to mastermind the destruction of the twin towers.
had let it be known that he would wear a Sears Roebuck tuxedo
to the Oscars. Now a self-made multimillionaire and award-winning
documentarian with an apartment in Manhattan, Moore is still cultivating
his image as a working class stiff from Flint, Michigan. His hulking
figure is customarily clad in baggy jeans, zip-up jackets, and
his trademark baseball caps. That was the outfit he wore when
he first came to moviegoers attention in 1989 with Roger
and Me, a documentary about how General Motors
automobile division had been abandoning their longtime workforce
and the city of Flint. Moore, the son of one of those autoworkers,
was a high school debater and a phenomenal political activist.
At 18 he was elected to the Flint School Committee, but his leftist
politics caused so much trouble that even his original supporters
were soon trying to have him recalled. Eventually he resigned.
successful stints producing alternative newspapers and a brief
and controversial tenure as editor of Mother Jones, he
turned his talents to documentary filmmaking. Moore is not someone
who came to the film medium with an aesthetic sensibility or even
with the premise of most documentariansthat the camera will
tell the story better than words. As to his technical knowledge
of the medium, one of his own favorite stories is that early on
he wangled an interview with Jesse Jackson and then asked him
how to work the video camera. His first documentary, made on a
shoestring budget, was alternative journalism with someone else
behind the camera. He played the working-stiff underdog who spoke
for the people of Flint who were now living below the poverty
line, surviving on welfare and foodstamps. His target in Roger
and Me was Roger Smith, chairman of GM, and he used his favorite
weapons, shame and ridicule. Moore also lampooned Flints
city fathers. Almost as bad as GMs plant reductions were
their ill-conceived schemes for saving the citys economy:
paying TV evangelist Robert Schuller $30,000 to come to Flint
and hold a giant revival meeting to heal the citys
plague of unemployment, convincing the Mott Foundation to invest
$100 million to build an Auto World amusement park
that closed in six months, using $13 million in tax funds to help
build a Hyatt Regency Hotel that descended into bankruptcy. Along
the way there is footage of visits from Ronald Reagan, Pat Boone,
Miss America, and TV game show host Bob Eubanks, all of whom appear
to be ridiculously out of touch with the grim economic realities
of the ordinary people of Flint. Moore is the schlep
as star of the documentary; comedian, muckraker, roving reporter
ready to exploit any opportunity that his type of guerilla journalism
with a camera will allow.
* * *
is clever enough to know when someone is making a fool of himself,
and he gives them enough ropetime on camerato hang
themselves. If that doesnt work he is not above getting
his preferred results by creative editing that outrages his critics.
It has to be said that no documentary is completely objective.
Even when the camera is allowed to tell the story the edited footage
reflects the filmmakers subjectivity. Think of Frederick
Wisemans prize-winning documentaries: in their own mind-numbing
way, they advocate a point of view. Wiseman made his reputation
by exposing the cruelty of the caretakers of the criminally insane,
the crushing boredom of the high school classroom, the mistreatment
of the higher primates by their keepers.
Moores project is different than the traditional documentarian,
and not only because of his political advocacy. He wants his films
to be feature-length entertainments. Moore accused the many critics
of Roger and Me of having no sense of humor and of evaluating
his movie as if it were an academic exercise. Pauline Kael called
him a big shambling joker, who uses people as stooges and
breaks faith with his audience. Writing in the New York
Times, Vincent Canby agreed that Moore was unfair,
but if you want fair, he suggested, you attend a college football
game. He compared Moores satirical humor to Mark Twains.
Kael and Canby could have been debating Bowling for Columbine.
people vote with their feet in such controversies, back in 1989
Canbys side won hands down. Moores shtick
as the working stiff who takes on GM was an instant success, and
he proved a formidable salesman for Roger and Me. It became
the most commercially successful non-concert documentary of all
time, and Moore was a rags-to-riches celebrity.
its methodological faults, the basic story line of Roger and
Me was true and needed telling. While posting record profits
and giving management record compensation, General Motors had
cut back 40,000 jobs in Flint. The same downsizing was happening
all over most of the industrialized world; workers in what were
once the powerful unions of the manufacturing industries could
not compete in the new free-market economy. Roger and Me was
about Flint but it was also at least implicitly about Reagans
America and Thatchers Britain. Moore was funny, he was bitter,
he was political, and knowing nothing about film he had reinvented
the documentary genre.
popular and commercial success of Roger and Me kept Moore
going for a decade. Early on he tried to write and direct a fictional
movie, Canadian Bacon. Despite a cast that included John
Candy, Alan Alda, Dan Aykroyd, and other stalwarts, it bombed.
Still, there were his TV shows, documentaries, books and book
tours, personal appearances, political campaigning (he supported
Ralph Naders presidential foray) and even a one-man show
on the London stage. But his fans had begun to detect the split
in his personality: a multimillionaire celebrity was now posing
as a working-class stiff. He sometimes seemed more like a bully
than an underdog everyman. However, the election of George W.
Bush seems to have reinvigorated Moore and his following. Over
the past year, his Stupid White Men was the best-selling
book of nonfiction in America, and Bushwho in his opinion
stole the election and now squats in the White Houseis
his primary target.
* * *
for Columbine was doing well in theaters even before its Oscar
win. Moores antiwar protest to the TV audience of a billion
who watched the Awards brought more people to see his movie and
sent Stupid White Men back to first place on the best-seller
listmuch to the dismay of the right-wing critics who have
begun a campaign to have the Academy take back his Oscar on the
grounds that his dishonesty violates the rules for documentaries.
Undeterred, Moore is planning a new documentary based on 9/11,
and he has already auctioned the project off to the politically
conservative Mel Gibsons production company. As Moore has
said, the great thing about capitalists is that they will
pay you to attack them if it will make money.
the subject matter of Bowling for Columbine, I doubt that
many capitalists would have expected it to make money. Everyone
in Hollywood knows that there is an insatiable audience for violent
films, but what could a documentary about violence say
that would be either new or interesting? Though Moore could have
followed the standard hypocritical formula of the antipornography
documentary that features lots of sex and nudity while deploring
them, he has not filled this film with scenes of gory violence.
And he has wisely stayed away from offering audiences scientific
explanations of violence. The National Academy of Sciences
commissioned a comprehensive and detailed overview of the accumulated
scientific understanding of violence acquired during the 20th
century. If Moore had sent a team of Ph.Ds to scour the
resulting four volumes, they would have found very little to report.
also wanted to address that terrible day of April 20, 1999, when
two teenagers with high-powered weapons killed 12 classmates,
a teacher, and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton,
Colorado. Columbine is an upscale, predominantly white high school
outside of Denver, and violence in that setting shocked middle-class
Americans. Science described the Columbine tragedy in a
featured story as The Shots Heard Round the World.
The journal consulted various psychological and psychiatric experts
on violence, none of whom could offer compelling explanations
for Columbine. It is to Michael Moores credit that he avoided
the academic talking heads who would have held forth on the demonic
y chromosome, amygdala, and serotonin levels in the brain.
documentary reverts to the methods that worked in Roger and
Me. He is the schlep star and his agenda is political, not
scientific. Moore proceeds by a kind of lateral rather than linear
thinking. He puts together a series of interviews that link Flint
and Littleton. Moore begins with some intriguing aspects of Michigans
gun culture. His blue-collar look gets him interviews with the
right-wing Michigan militia, who look and talk like wacky refugees
from the Jerry Springer show as they insist on their constitutional
right to bear arms. Even more extraordinary is Moores interview
with James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols, who was convicted
for helping Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Oklahoma City
Federal Building. One can see that Moore is on a fishing expedition
when he goes to visit Nichols on his Michigan farm where McVeigh
and Terry Nichols practiced making small bombs. In the course
of the filmed interviewduring which Nichols repeats answers
he must have given many times beforeMoore somehow gets through
to the weirdness behind the mask of reason. A strange smile comes
over Nicholss face as he acknowledges that he sleeps with
a loaded pistol under his pillow. Moore baits him and asks to
see the gun. Nichols agrees but not on camera. He takes Moore
into his bedroom, and there with the door ajar we hear him prove
to Moore that the gun is loaded by cocking it and putting it to
his own head. Moore begs him to desist but we know this is a weird
moment that only Moore could have created.
one of his more amusing scenes, Moore finds a Michigan bank that
will give a gun to anyone who opens a savings account. Moore turns
up at the bank and is shown getting a rifle in short order. As
he walks out he holds up the gun and asks if it isnt a little
dangerous to be giving out guns in a bank. The bank looks pretty
stupid and the audience laughs.
the truth is that the bank doesnt ordinarily hand over guns
to customers. Moores people arranged this exchange well
in advance. The required paperwork and waiting time for gun ownership
was done long before the scene was shot and as a favor to Moore
the rifle had been delivered to the bank so Moore could pick it
up there rather than going to the gun dealer as is ordinarily
required. One Michigan bank does indeed reward a savings account
with a gift certificate for a rifle instead of a toaster. That
certainly says something about how Michiganders feel about guns.
But nothing else in this scene, according to the bank official,
has anything to do with reality.
of Moores skill as a moviemaker consists of manipulating
people so that they reveal themselves in cinematic moments that
are the equivalent of found art. He is the Duchamp of documentarians.
Where it is possible to believe that Duchamp, with his famous
urinal, is laughing at his audience, Moore seems to be exploiting
or at least mocking the people he films. Nowhere is this more
evident than in his treatment of the critical Michigan event in
Moores pastiche: the shooting murder of a six-year-old girl
in a school near Flint by a first-grade classmatethe youngest
such killer on record. This chilling event is the basis for Moores
confrontation with Charlton Heston in the final scene of the movie.
introduces the subject by interviewing the grade-school principal.
As she rehearses the story for Moore she suddenly loses her composure
and turns away from the camera in tears. Nothing else she may
have told Moore appears in the documentary. The grade-school killing
was front-page news all over the country. In the mass media the
killing was about a boy in first grade who was a bully and difficult
to control in school. His mother sent the boy to live in a crack
house, where one of the clients exchanged a loaded gun for drugs.
That is the story of race, poverty, and violence with which Americans
have become familiar.
documentary focused on other details of the case: the little boys
mother is a victim of Michigans Welfare to Work program;
she is forced to work two low-wage jobs a long bus ride away;
despite this she is being evicted from her home because she does
not make enough money, and she sends the child to live at an uncles
house, where the boy finds the loaded pistol.
goes all the way to California to shame Dick Clark, whose restaurant
got a tax break for hiring the Welfare to Work mother. And at
the end of his documentary he is filming an interview with Charlton
Heston, telling him that as president of the NRA he owes the people
of that Michigan suburb an apology. This is the story of how the
rich and famous white men who control the American establishment
have abandoned social welfare programs and blame their economic
victims for the tragic results.
confrontations with Clark and Heston are part of his underlying
political interpretation of this grade-school tragedy and his
central thesis in Bowling for Columbine. His idea is that
white Americans, since they first crossed the Atlantic, have been
living in fear of retribution for their violence against people
of color. That is his take on American history, American racism,
American foreign policy. Our violence begets violence: thus, Bin
Laden. And that in the end is why we have so many guns and why
we kill so many people with them. Using South Parkstyle
cartoons, he illustrates white Americas fear of its victims.
A corollary to this basic premise is that corporate America endorses
fear because it fuels consumerism. Whatever you think about this
idea, it is buttressed by the one example of solid empirical evidence
presented in the film. Violence in America has actually been going
down while the amount of time devoted to it on the nightly news
and the concerns of viewers has been going up dramatically. Moores
theories may not explain gun violence, but as a take on the national
character of white Americastupid, fearful, violent, consumeristit
will certainly be appreciated in some quarters.
portrayal of American character currently has enormous appeal
in Europe, and Moore is regarded as the closest thing America
has to a radical left wing presence in its mass media.
When Bowling for Columbine was shown at Cannes last May,
the audience gave Moore a standing ovation that reportedly lasted
20 minutes. The Cannes jury created a special award to honor the
documentary. The French obviously loved Moores ironic absurdity,
and they delighted in his left-leaning anti-white-American political
take. And an Australian critic described the documentary as a
witty exposé of the foibles of the most powerful country
in the world.
prototypical wacky white Americans are the members of the National
Rifle Association, led by Charlton Heston. The villain of Bowling
for Columbine, Heston was president of the National Rifle
Association until April 2003; he announced last summer that he
was suffering from symptoms consistent with Alzheimers disease.
Moore portrays the NRA and Heston as callouslyindeed spitefullycoming
to Denver to hold a rally immediately after the incident at Columbine.
Then he has Heston rushing with the NRA to Michigan to promote
their right to own guns after the six-year-old killed his classmate.
These are deliberate falsehoods in which Moore breaks faith
with his audience. Moore goes from surveillance footage
of the tragedy at Columbine in 1999 to a shot of a defiant Heston
holding up a musket and uttering his famous from my cold
dead hands line, as if this happened in Denver within days
of the shootings. But Heston was presented that musket and uttered
those words almost a year after Columbine and hundreds of miles
away. Moore edits and rearranges Hestons appearances and
speeches to create the stupid, callous white guy he attacks. The
full speech that Heston gave in Denver and Moores edited
version are available side by side on the Web, and the reader
can decide what to think about this.
has used his reputation and charisma to rally the NRA as a political
force in America. He has given aid and comfort to right-wing fanatics
like the Michigan militia. You may believe that Heston deserved
Moores indictment, even if it is tainted by deliberate falsehoodwhich
it is. But if you care about the truth you should know that the
NRA did not rush defiantly to Denver after Columbine. It was their
bad luck to have scheduled their annual meeting in Denver on a
date that fell shortly after Columbine. The mayor of Denver asked
them not to come. The NRA compromised, called off their festivities,
and scaled back their celebration. Heston was in no way defiant
about Columbine; his actual speech will make that clear to any
fair-minded person. And certainly Heston did not rush to Flint
after the grade-school killing to champion gun ownership. He arrived
months later, on a tour of three states to get out the Republican
facts are crucial to ones understanding of the final scene
in which Moore, the poor working-class stiff, confronts Hollywoods
Moses. Moore finds his way on the Hollywood map of stars to Hestons
palatial home and wrangles an interview by explaining through
the intercom that he is a member of the NRA doing a documentary
on the gun controversy. Moore and his cameraman are allowed onto
the estate, and Moore accuses Heston of insensitivity for coming
to Flint after the grade-school shooting. Heston never made such
a visit and is obviously confused and abashed when Moore tells
him he owes the community an apology. The bewildered and offended
Heston gets up and retreats.
viewers of this scene might think the stupid white guy finally
got what he deserved, but to me Moore was the bully and Heston
was the victim who could not defend himself. Michael Moores
politics are close to my own and his documentary does raise important
questions about American racism, militarism, and domestic and
foreign policy. Still, his tactics in Bowling for Columbine
are no better than those of talk radios right-wing demagogues.
Is it wrong to think that we should be better than they are? <
A. Stone is Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry
at Harvard Law School.
published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review