Documentary filmmaker and folksy polemicist Michael Moore, famous for his exposés of corporate greed and misconduct, has now made a very funny movie about fear, specifically the fear that permeates American culture. It’s a big topic and his film, running a little over two hours, has an agreeable sprawl. Although the central issue is gun violence, the film also touches on media fixations, corporate complicity, international politics and racism. It’s a rambling essay unified by a central concern and punctuated by a recurring question: Why does America lead the world, by a huge margin, in the number of gun-related deaths among its citizenry? Why are we so special?
But before considering the question of whether or not the film comes close to an answer, one must consider Michael Moore. The conventional wisdom about Moore is that he’s a dubious character, a shifty manipulator of facts and fudger of truths, either well-meaning but overdetermined to win the argument (if you agree with him) or just a bad egg (if you don’t). But I’ve always been dubious about Moore’s dubiousness. The few examples I’ve seen put forth (and I’m admittedly not a student of Moore minutiae) of his presenting a fact which turns out to be partial, in both senses of the word, or of staging a scene and presenting it as though it were spontaneous haven’t seemed crucial to the overall veracity of the subject at hand. Moore is a satirist and a satirist is an angry person with a well-developed sense of humor whose job is not to be accurate but, rather, to be effective.
Besides, there’s an ambiguity in Columbine that has been missing in Moore’s earlier work. One never gets the impression that he really knows the answer to the central question he poses, and much of what is presented — the usual suspects, trotted out once again — seems more like symptoms than causes.
Some of the comedy is direct and conventionally exaggerated: e.g., a clip from an HBO concert where Chris Rock opines that one way to curb gun crime is to make bullets prohibitively expensive — say $5,000 each — which would also eliminate the possibility of innocent bystanders (“He must have done something. They put $50,000 worth of bullets in his ass”); and an animated history of the United States narrated by a bullet that’s both terribly simplistic and very funny. Sometimes the humor comes from something not necessarily funny being recontextualized, like a montage of fear-mongering TV news stories, culminating with the dreaded “Africanized killer bees.”
But the slyest bits are those in which Moore appears as an on-camera investigator. Cozily rumpled and faking incredulity, he applies for an account at a bank that gives out free rifles to new customers. Faced with his regular Joe persona, it never occurs to the bank representative to become defensive. When Moore interviews James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City co-conspirator Terry, the man opens up enough to seem like a nice guy — crazy, sure, but amiable and relatively restrained. You don’t see the scooped-out and hardened aspect of a committed paranoiac, and the depressive doggedness of the self-made militiaman only occasionally peeks out.
Columbine is a panorama of disturbing surfaces presented as absurdist comedy, with a few serious interludes — most notably when Moore and two Columbine victims go to Kmart headquarters to try to convince the chain to stop selling bullets, with surprising results. But since there’s no inward perspective, the film is bound to be unsatisfying.
Moore seems baffled that Canada is a relatively peaceful country, but has nearly as many guns as we do and its citizens watch the same violent entertainment. What’s being overlooked is a peculiarly American way of thinking, nurtured by social isolationism and sublimated trace elements of Puritan absolutism regarding ideas of justice. Which is to say, the real propagator of racism and other types of fear isn’t experience, it’s imagination. Just as the militiamen seem odd because they appear to be bedeviled by phantoms (sinister overlords who only descend during violent episodes), the racist’s mindset will flourish as long as he has no normal interaction with the object of his obsession. There’s also the fact that egalitarianism is the shared social religion here, the deeply held belief that no one should be more powerful than anyone else. There’s a reason guns are called “equalizers.”
The film ends on what is bound to be a controversial note, as Moore conducts an “ambush” interview with Charlton Heston. Now that we know that Heston has Alzheimer’s, the civilized impulse is to be charitable as he rambles on like a doddering old fool. And Moore doesn’t help by adding a flourish after the interview that seems both a little too righteous and certainly exploitative.
Still, and on balance, Moore seems to be on the right side of the discussion — which, as always, is the side that asks a lot of questions.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.