This product was provided by the Criterion Collection for the purpose of this review. All opinions are our own.
Sixteen years after its release, Bowling for Columbine seems fated to be a Rorschach test of the snail’s-pace progress of gun control in the United States. Watch it now after the March for Our Lives and after social media means that pushes for legislation aren’t coming from politicians but from the survivors themselves, who then must suffer the indignity of being pushed away or having their very legitimacy questioned by those who reject their demands.
At first glance, it feels like a follow-up is necessary. But nothing is really different about an American society not wanting to review the steadfast role it plays in fostering a cycle of violence so vicious and unending – and uniquely its own – that other countries look upon the United States’ towering body counts with bewilderment.
And while that hasn’t changed a lick, there’s also something un-timely about the film. The title Bowling for Columbine evokes a time when individual mass shootings could automatically conjure forth the entire gamut of debate on gun control in all its political haranguing. Despite it being referenced in the title, the Columbine massacre receives little direct discussion in proportion to the movie’s larger efforts to construct a thesis on the fearful instincts of American culture.
There’s only one special feature on the disc that’s been specifically made for its release. Michael Moore Makes a Movie is an EPK-ish, half-hour documentary in which Moore, alongside members of his production crew, relay a handful of anecdotes surrounding the film’s production. Particularly in focus is how the director’s process carries from project to project, combing meticulously structural ideas around the necessarily impromptu elements as the news cycle keeps going and relevant material keeps springing forth.
There’s something to be said about how the only new supplement on the disc is about an idea that’s noted for being replicable. In a roundabout way, it enforces the central message of the film itself. Bowling for Columbine is less a tightened look at gun politics than it is an indictment of America’s predictable and deep-rooted obsessions with the financially lucrative intersections of paranoia and prejudice. It may only capture the first three years after the news media’s beats of covering a mass shooting entered the public sphere, but Moore’s points about the gratuitous nature of a national obsession on imminent danger are more necessary now than ever.
His cheeky forays into Canada, where everyone keeps their doors unlocked and own guns without regularly going on rampages, are silly and rather formless. Yet they provide sharp juxtapositions to the States, where the local news stations crank out dogwhistle-laden coverage on “inner-city” criminals and shrieks about the latest hypothetical diseases sure to become pandemics.
Everybody’s armed because they think they’ll need to defend themselves from some imagined horror at any second. The message conveyed as a result is that, not only is it necessary to own as many guns as possible, to do otherwise would be to fail as a responsible citizen. It’s not hard to find the negative effects of that fearful mindset, and Moore comprehensively attacks it from every angle.
It leads us to his core as an activist: calling out systemic ignorance through the most visible means possible. The three most-noted things he does in Bowling for Columbine – getting K-Mart to stop stocking ammunition by having Columbine survivors personally lobby executives at corporate headquarters; interviewing Marilyn Manson, who was famously a scapegoat for media pundits who didn’t want to talk about gun control after Columbine; and the notorious Charlton Heston interview – are all examples of showmanship to an almost obnoxious degree. And yet all three scenes are stunningly effective, seared into the mind of the viewer.
Moore’s focus is in empathetic performance art. His politics are progressive, but his ideology is less about partisan lines and more about expression. He could only thrive in a visual medium. Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s first blockbuster documentary, connected with regular moviegoers because it’s so in-your-face cinematic, from an aggressive interview style to a rapid rhythm of pop music, archival footage and animation.
You get the stylistic flourishes in all their glory here. The transfer on this Criterion is solid, sharpening the crisp interview footage and maintaining the punchiness in the mixture of dialogue, archival clips, sound effects and music from the soundtrack.
You’re not saying anything new if you point out that Moore isn’t a particularly canny documentarian. He’ll always have a penchant for selective editing and a reliance on grandstanding publicity stunts (so outrageous that they usually work). But as an artist, he works on a genuine level of expertise. He’s a persistent, breathless and often hilarious filmmaker.
As the Eric Hynes essay in the Criterion booklet astutely points out, it’s best to consider Moore’s films as a kind of dynamic presentation, mixing traditional storytelling techniques and operatic hellraising with the kind of infuriating horrors that can only come from simply discussing aspects of real life as they stand.