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Cheap Shots

Alan A. Stone

Bowling for Columbine
Directed by Michael Moore
Produced by Michael Moore, Kathleen Glynn, and Jim Czarnecki

8Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.” With those lines Michael Moore scolded the president and stole the headlines at this year’s 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, Moore’s documentary on America’s 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: “Everyone’s getting along just fine backstage, the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.”

Actually 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 Redgrave’s 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 Bush’s war. Unfortunately, none of the press asked Moore about his own fictions—the ways in which he had doctored “truth” in Bowling for Columbine.

Serious concerns on this score had been raised months before in the mainstream press. New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott dismissed some of Moore’s 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.

Moore 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.

After 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 documentarians—that 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 Flint’s city fathers. Almost as bad as GM’s plant reductions were their ill-conceived schemes for saving the city’s economy: paying TV evangelist Robert Schuller $30,000 to come to Flint and hold a giant revival meeting to “heal” the city’s 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.

*  *  *

Moore is clever enough to know when someone is making a fool of himself, and he gives them enough rope—time on camera—to hang themselves. If that doesn’t 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 filmmaker’s subjectivity. Think of Frederick Wiseman’s 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.

But Moore’s 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 Moore’s satirical humor to Mark Twain’s. Kael and Canby could have been debating Bowling for Columbine.

If people vote with their feet in such controversies, back in 1989 Canby’s side won hands down. Moore’s “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.

Whatever 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 Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain. Moore was funny, he was bitter, he was political, and knowing nothing about film he had reinvented the documentary genre.

The 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 Nader’s 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 Bush—who in his opinion stole the election and now “squats” in the White House—is his primary target.

*  *  *

Bowling for Columbine was doing well in theaters even before its Oscar win. Moore’s 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 list—much 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 Gibson’s 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.”

Given 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.D’s to scour the resulting four volumes, they would have found very little to report.

Moore 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 Moore’s 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.

Moore’s 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 Michigan’s 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 Moore’s 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 interview—during which Nichols repeats answers he must have given many times before—Moore somehow gets through to the weirdness behind the mask of reason. A strange smile comes over Nichols’s 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.

In 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 isn’t a little dangerous to be giving out guns in a bank. The bank looks pretty stupid and the audience laughs.

But the truth is that the bank doesn’t ordinarily hand over guns to customers. Moore’s 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.

Much of Moore’s 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 Moore’s pastiche: the shooting murder of a six-year-old girl in a school near Flint by a first-grade classmate—the youngest such killer on record. This chilling event is the basis for Moore’s confrontation with Charlton Heston in the final scene of the movie.

Moore 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.

Moore’s documentary focused on other details of the case: the little boy’s mother is a victim of Michigan’s 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 uncle’s house, where the boy finds the loaded pistol.

Moore 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.

Moore’s 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 Park–style cartoons, he illustrates white America’s 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. Moore’s theories may not explain gun violence, but as a take on the national character of white America—stupid, fearful, violent, consumerist—it will certainly be appreciated in some quarters.

This 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 Moore’s 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.”

Moore’s 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 Alzheimer’s disease. Moore portrays the NRA and Heston as callously—indeed spitefully—coming 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 Heston’s appearances and speeches to create the stupid, callous white guy he attacks. The full speech that Heston gave in Denver and Moore’s edited version are available side by side on the Web, and the reader can decide what to think about this.

Heston 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 Moore’s indictment, even if it is tainted by deliberate falsehood—which 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 vote.

These facts are crucial to one’s understanding of the final scene in which Moore, the poor working-class stiff, confronts Hollywood’s Moses. Moore finds his way on the Hollywood map of stars to Heston’s 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.

Many 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 Moore’s 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 radio’s right-wing demagogues. Is it wrong to think that we should be better than they are? <

Alan A. Stone is Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review

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