Are we a nation of gun nuts, or are we just nuts?
With his guerilla style tactics and often ostentatious perseverance for the blue collar working man, writer/director Michael Moore has become something of a national hero for those who toil in the 9-5 workplace. In 1989, Moore broke into Hollywood with his documentary Roger & Me, a scathing look at General Motors and its decision to close one of its largest factories in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. After writing a few books ("Downsize This!," "Stupid White Men") Moore is back with a vengeance in Bowling for Columbine, a look at the United States of America and our near obsession with guns. Bowling for Columbine curves left and garners a strike on DVD care of MGM Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the writer/director goes in search of answers to why the U.S. is so crazy for guns, and what makes us the #1 country when it comes to gun related deaths. Moore's inquisitive nature will take him all over the country (and Canada!) as he probes various folks for answers to a question where there may be none. Along the way, he talks with both the students and parents of those caught in the tragic 1999 Columbine shooting, National Gun Association president Charlton Heston, shock rocker Marilyn Manson, John Nichols (brother of Oklahoma bomber Terry Nichols), and a host of other folks with various viewpoints on American violence. Viewers can also expect some eye-opening facts: where as a country like Australia has well under 100 gun related deaths, America has well over 11,000. It's these sobering statistics that drive Moore to find out what has made us such a violent nation, and what can we do to end the madness.
When Michael Moore won the Academy Award for Best Documentary at the 2003 Oscars, he was practically booed offstage by various Hollywood yahoos who felt that he was saying the wrong thing ("Shame on you Mr. Bush") at the wrong time. My question is this: what else did you expect from the guy? Moore thrives on creating controversy though speeches, politics, and random surprise interviews. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find his infamous speech plastered inside his next movie (though I doubt the Academy would give him permission to use it). While he may not know the appropriate time and place in every instance, I give him credit for stirring up our feelings, forcing us to ask hard questions about the country, our leaders, and most importantly, ourselves.
Whether you agree with Moore or not, you've got to give the guy credit: he's got balls the size of watermelons. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore runs from setting to setting, finding various people for various reasons, each time exacting a reaction that is sometimes outrageous, often funny, and always thought-provoking. What starts out as a documentary about guns quickly turns into a movie about race (black people are often pointed to as suspects), the effects of rock music on youth (Marilyn Manson is the most well spoken person in the film), why Canada seems to peaceful (they don't even lock their doors at night!), and why Moses himself, Charlton Heston, decided to hold a gun rally in Colorado only a week after the Columbine shootings.
[Editor's Note: Though I had a similar reaction as Judge Naugle to the film upon first viewing, I'd urge you to read the link to "The Truth About Bowling For Columbine" included in the Accomplices. In the opinions of some, Moore has played quite loosely with the facts in this film, no more so than in his vilification of Charlton Heston and the NRA rallies.]
The most unique aspect about the film is that Moore himself isn't really trying to collect "THE" answer to our nation's troubles. It's as if he realizes that there is no easy solution to what ails us. While he doesn't necessarily agree with the NRA, he's a supporter because he's a member. In other words, Moore doesn't come off as a hypocrite who is trying to shut down the parts of the country he doesn't like. In the simplest of ways he's just trying to come to terms with why our nation is so violent and self-destructive. He does this with sympathy, anger, frustration, and most importantly, humor. His interview tactics are interesting. Almost everyone in the film seems to react differently than what is expected. Marilyn Manson pontificates (and highly intelligently) on the reasons for youthful violence. Subsequently, Charlton Heston makes a vague reference to the violence in America being due in part to "ethnic differences." Though Heston has suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his later years, there's no signs that it's affecting his ideas on gun control in Bowling for Columbine—he just seems to be as lacking in answers as the rest of us. The only interviewee who responds exactly as expected is John Nichols, brother of terrorist Terry Nichols and friend of Timothy McVie. When asked why he couldn't change the world in a peaceful manner like Mahatma Gandhi, Nichols bafflingly admits that he's not sure who Gandhi was. So much for the American education system.
Moore is a genuinely funny guy, and the movie often makes light of larger issues (which is what is often needed in lieu of the subject matter). But for every moment of humor there is an equally somber scene. In a harrowing sequence, the events of the Columbine high school tragedy are shown through surveillance cameras with emergency 911 calls ringing in the background. It's quite possibly one of the most disturbing moments in any film because we know what we're seeing is real, not some staged Hollywood-ized version of the truth. And yet Moore is still able to make us smile in the face of terror, as when he attempts to persuade a TV producer to create a show around arrests by corporate cops. The producer notes that if they could get the CEOs to flee in their vehicles or throw their cell phones at the cops they may have something, though the chances of that happening are highly unlikely.
I've been amused and enamored with Moore since his arrival in Hollywood. I don't agree with everything he says or does, yet I think he's a breath of fresh air in a business that thrives on reality hidden under a heavy mask of make believe. Moore cracks the world wide open with a video camera and shows us what the entertainment biz doesn't want you to see: real life suffering. And in the midst of this suffering, Moore attempts to make things better by asking fundamental questions about us as a people. His 2003 Oscar was well deserved.
Bowling for Columbine is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. For whatever the reason, I remember this film being presented in full frame in the theaters. I may be wrong. Apparently, I have a very faulty memory when it comes to these things. Generally speaking, the transfer on Bowling for Columbine is only so-so, though that's due to the fact that much of the footage was either shot on videotape or comes from some kind of stock footage from years ago. In other words, it's expected that some of these images aren't going to look very good. Since this is a documentary, I wasn't looking for crisp, pristine images—though there are many flaws, they work well within the confines of the film. Overall the colors are solid when needed and the black levels dark when appropriate.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. This is a fairly engaging sound mix that features a lot of music and Moore's voiceover work though all six speakers. Though the bulk of this track tends to be front heavy during most of the videotaped segments, there are some decent directional and musical effects in the mix. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
MGM has produced a new "special edition" of Bowling for Columbine, and it's jam packed with extra features. It also comes with a certificate for a free .357 Magnum with every purchase. Just kidding. Here's a rundown of what's been included on this disc:
• Audio Introduction by Michael Moore: Moore gives a brief intro on this track, mostly about why he decided not to record an audio commentary (he thinks that the film speaks for itself).
• Commentary Track by Various Interns and Production Assistants: As Moore points out, this may be the first commentary track featuring what I affectionately refer to as "the little people" (it's not a slam, I'm in that category as well). The various interns and assistants reminisce about their work on the film, as well as what they think of Moore and the finished product. Since there's a lot of people on this track, it's a fairly fast paced listen. Although I would have rather heard Moore's thoughts on the film (only because he was really on the front lines for this thing), it's still nice to see (or hear) the lower end folks get their due.
• Michael Moore on his Oscar Win and Acceptance Speech: If you were wondering what Moore's thoughts were on his Oscar acceptance speech (in which he bashed the war and president George W. Bush), here's your chance. Moore sits at a picnic table in Michigan and reminisces about the infamous Oscar speech, what it was like being booed while onstage, and how he's a big fan of presenter Diane Lane. It's not fancy, but it is interesting and a fine look into Moore's thoughts on the event.
• Return to Denver/Littleton: Michael Moore revisits Littleton, Colorado and the University of Denver six months after the release of the film. Moore speaks to the crowd about his feelings of being back in Colorado. This is one of the less interesting features on this disc.
• Film Festival Scrapbook: This is a literal piecing together of various events, including Moore at the Cannes film festival (featuring Naomi Watts and director David Lynch) and his acceptance of his award, more interview footage with Moore, Moore at the London film festival, et cetera. This is a decent, if muddled, hodgepodge of moments from Bowling for Columbine's history.
• Marilyn Manson Music Video: "Fight Song": If you're a big Manson fan, I'm sure you'll get a kick out of this video. If not, well…then you're me.
• Michael Moore at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival: This is yet another interview with Moore featuring Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart asking the filmmaker questions about almost everything under the sun (the rich and poor getting screwed, the Bush and Reagan era, et cetera). Moore once again gets a little booing from the crowd, which is always entertaining to watch.
• Segment from "The Awful Truth II: Corporate Cops": A very funny segment from Moore's TV show The Awful Truth. Moore attempts to bring down the nasty corporate criminals in blue suits. This is a funny take off of the COPS TV show. As a bonus we also get Crackers, everyone's favorite crime fighting chicken! As usual, Michael ruffles a lot of feathers (pun intended) for various high powered companies.
• Michael Moore on the Charlie Rose Show: Okay, I think we're doing a bit of overkill on these interview segments. Moore once again covers familiar ground with Rose, discussing the movie he's made and what his feelings are about the United States and our love of guns. Blah, blah, blah.
Finally there is a staff and crew photo gallery from the film's production as well as a theatrical trailer for Bowling for Columbine.
I can guarantee that you won't see a better, more provocative documentary this year. In a rare twist of fate, Bowling for Columbine really did deserve all the awards and praise that it garnered. Moore is one of the best documentary filmmakers around, and I'm really looking forward to whatever his next movie may be. I suggest revisiting his back catalog, except of course for that horrid John Candy comedy Canadian Bacon. MGM's work on this disc is excellent—they've included a lot of informative extra features, as well as a well produced anamorphic transfer and well mixed DD 5.1 track.
Bowling for Columbine is more than just funny or entertaining: it's relevant. Recommended.
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