Michael Moore has been doing much the same thing for going on three decades: Making documentary films that reach political conclusions that I essentially agree with, but salting all that with obnoxious behavior, faulty argumentation, pointless stunts, and the need to put himself at the center of attention in all of this projects.
Moore emerged as a massive, massive figure of hatred on the right during the Bush years, at a time when dissent to the Iraq War was treated like treason. When he appeared seated next to Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I remember it being a huge controversy. That era, in which he made Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 back to back, was probably his most prominent.
Things it Got Right
In Bowling For Columbine, which arrived 20 years ago this month and won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Moore got the big things right. American gun culture really sucks and is one of the worst things about our country. The NRA is a menace. The media does way more fear-mongering than it should. And it’s wrong to assign blame for such tragedies to things that aren’t any relation to them.
Indeed, it was kind of a ridiculous phenomenon that a lot of people across the political spectrum blamed the Columbine massacre on their political opponents and hobbyhorses, apportioning blame on the likes of Marilyn Manson (Manson, it turns out, was to blame for lots of terrible things, just not that one, although the movie ridiculously uses Manson as a moral voice of reason). It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself with every school shooting, and every other bad event, in the years since.
Things it Got Wrong
And then, Moore spends much of the film doing exactly that, trying to tie Columbine to stuff he doesn’t like. Is there a connection between the Columbine mass shooting, and Lockheed Martin has having weapons plants in the area? No, there’s really not! Neither does a long montage, set to “What a Wonderful World,” of ill-fated CIA coups and interventions. And implying that it does is almost as stupid as blaming Marilyn Manson.
Then there’s this silly cartoon:
In addition to the faulty history, the cartoon’s aping of South Park‘s style so antagonized South Park co-creator and Bowling For Columbine interviewee Matt Stone, that Moore became a permanent South Park villain, with Stone and Trey Parker even depicting him as a hot dog-wielding suicide bomber in 2004’s Team America: World Police.
The facts are also wrong at various points. The title is based on the idea that the two shooters had gone to a bowling class the morning of the shootings, when it turned out that they, in fact, had not gone that day.
Dave Cullen’s book Columbine was a much better examination of the massacre, including knocking down various bad reporting and media myths.
The film also includes a lot of Moore’s trademark stunts. He goes to a bank that gives out free rifles to anyone who opens an account. He asks a cop why he can’t arrest people for pollution. There’s also a particularly loathsome scene in which Moore visits actor-turned-NRA president Charlton Heston — who, it appears, had no idea where he was at the time— to harangue him about a shooting.
But what Moore doesn’t do is offer any workable policy solutions. And in the twenty years since, the problems, which through massively increased gun ownership or the continuing numbers of mass shootings, have only gotten worse.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.