Michael Moore Asks Big Questions

Michael Moore is the documentary filmmaker that movie critics hate to love. The Los Angeles Times calls his new movie, "scattershot," "haphazard" and "all over the map." The New York Times accuses him of "slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding and outright demagoguery." And yet, with almost no exceptions, the critics heartily recommend "Bowling for Columbine."

If you're comparing Moore's work to a sepia-toned Ken Burns opus, it's easy to see where the criticism comes from. "Bowling for Columbine" aims for the gut, throws big ideas into the ring and doesn't really grapple with all of them. But it is gripping and powerful; it grabs you by the heartstrings and makes you laugh at your assumptions. And precisely because Moore does not pretend to answer all of the questions he raises, "Bowling for Columbine" is that rarest of beasts: A movie that makes you feel, and then makes you think.

“Bowling for Columbine” has already won a slew of awards, including a 13-minute standing ovation and the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A limited release in Los Angeles and New York resulted in sold-out theaters last weekend on both coasts, and United Artists is now planning a 700- to 900-theater release nationwide. According to Moore, that's a record-breaking number of screens for a documentary -- beating out even his famous debut documentary, "Roger & Me."

Given the film's subject matter, its early success is already a remarkable achievement. “Bowling for Columbine” is about the root causes of violence in American culture; yet it grossed a healthy $206,000 on a limited release in its opening weekend. That bears repeating -- a documentary about gun control and crime in America is selling out. What's next, a treatise on international diplomacy sweeping the Christmas season?

But of course, the point is that Moore’s picture is not a treatise, it's not a presentation, it's not even really a single, coherent argument. Instead, Moore provokes, he searches, he even pokes fun. Regardless of what you think of the film, it seems almost impossible to leave the theater without turning to whoever is next to you and talking about it.

With war looming in Iraq and a sniper terrorizing suburban Washington DC, the film could not be more timely. Moore recognizes those events, but he's looking beyond any one news hook. "Forty people a day are shot and killed in this country," he said at a screening in San Francisco last Friday. The big question, for him, goes beyond the "geographically contained” bloodshed caused by one sniper. Why, he wants to know, is America so violent? Why do Americans shoot each other so much more than people do in other developed countries?

It can't just be the video games, because the Japanese play more of them and watch more brutally violent movies. It can't be our history of violence, because the Germans don't have as much trouble. It can't be poverty, ethnic tension or the number of guns, because the Canadians have just as many minorities, just as many unemployed and just as many guns per head. It can't be Marilyn Manson, because everybody listens to Marilyn Manson (who by the way is shown to be refreshingly articulate in the film).

One of his strongest sequences touches on the criminalization of the poor. In the movie, he tells the story of a Michigan single mother whose six-year-old son found a gun, brought it to school, and shot and killed a fellow first-grader. Moore goes where no news media dared, and looks into the particulars of the boy's life. The child was staying at his uncle's house because his mother, who was holding down two jobs, was about to be evicted. She was being bused from her own neighborhood to work in an upscale mall an hour and a half away, on state orders, as part of a welfare-to-work program. She didn't see her son take a gun to school because she had to leave home to catch the bus before he got up.

It is one of the most heartwrenching sequences in the film, second only to the video camera footage from inside Columbine High School. And it raises the question of whether the welfare-to-work program, and the tremendous stress it puts on poor families, could have contributed to the tragedy.

"I don't have all the answers," he says, noting that racism is highest on the list of problems. "I think once we attempt to deal with the racist feelings that are almost genetically encoded in us ... I think if we deal with that then things will calm down quite a bit." He thinks less racist politicians wouldn't pass such welfare-to-work laws. "Putting that mother on a bus for an hour and a half to go work in the mall to pay back whatever money she got for welfare ... that, to me, is a state-sponsored act of violence."

Some critics have blasted Moore for connecting violence at home to America's foreign policy and past history of bloodshed and aggression. Other countries have equally violent histories, a point Moore makes himself. So a pissing contest between America's violent history and that of other colonial powers seems beside the point.

It seems fair for Moore to ask whether America’s propensity for solving problems abroad with violence has some connection to the nation’s violent domestic tendencies. Moore thinks the reviewers just don't get it. "It's like they're saying, 'Guns killing kids in the U.S. -- bad. But why'd you have to bring up guns killing innocent kids in other countries?" he says.

But once our global policies are on the table, it's hard to avoid other questions; like, what about violence in poor and developing countries under the IMF's thumb? What about the drug war?

Moore's connections aren't so much tenuous as they are incomplete -- he knows he doesn't have time to do justice to the whole picture. He's tackling the big questions. And more power to him, since no one else is raising them on 700 movie screens nationwide. "I want to get people talking about what we collectively have a responsibility to do," he says.

That mission makes some of the accusations of self-promotion and demagoguery that get thrown at Moore rather ironic. It's not so much that he doesn't deserve it, but that others seem immune to the same charges. Moore ambushes Dick Clark to ask him about the plight of the first-grader with a gun (the child’s mother worked at one of Dick Clark's branded restaurants). Dick Clark gets a tax break for employing such welfare-to-work employees.

And Clark -- looking rich and slick from his career as Dick Clark and his "Dick Clark's American Bandstand" restaurants, surrounded by his entourage in a chauffeured van with tinted windows -- refuses to speak with Moore. Why doesn’t Dick Clark get any flak for his callous, self-serving behavior?

And how can Moore be accused of being a demagogue in a nation where the tone is set by a president who speaks almost exclusively in black and white terms about American families versus "evil-doers"? In the course of Moore's movie, a news clip shows George W. Bush telling the American people that one way to "show our unity" is to support his budget for the Pentagon.

Michael Moore can certainly be obnoxious. We might not put up with his behavior from someone who didn't have such brilliant comic timing or who wasn't so clearly an American son. But “Bowling for Columbine,” more so than any of his other works, makes it clear that Moore loves America and ordinary Americans, so it's easier to take it when he outs some of the darker sides of our character. He may not have all the answers. But he's the only one challenging so many of us to take a long hard look in the mirror.

"The fabric of violence in our culture is made up of lots of little threads," he says, "and I want to look at all of them, not just the ones that the evening news wants you to look at."

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