Documentary Corner: Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Sam Slater guides us through the the story of one of cinemas most controversial documentaries.

Sam Slater
18th November 2019
Michael Moore is a man who divides opinion. Those who hold right of centre political views see him as a raving liberal, pushing a political agenda through the documentaries he carefully crafts with a one-sided bias. Others believe him to be one of the most important documentary makers of all time, highlighting issues within America to its citizens and beyond.

The US attachment to their guns is something that will likely never be understood by the outside world. It seems outrageous and almost unbelievable that despite a rich history of gun violence of creating victims of all ages, little has been done to try and prevent history repeating itself. Hence, Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s most successful and important documentary.

The film, as to be expected from a Moore documentary, is controversial in almost every scene, creating a debate about the spotlights he puts on things and the things he chooses to omit. Instances such as the infamous offer of a free gun for opening a bank account in a small town in Michigan highlight how accessible guns can be in America. Critics have suggested Moore misled the bank into presenting him the gun on camera, usually the offer required background checks before the gun is presented to the customer although this still seems ridiculous compared to the rail card Santander offer. As in any political film, Moore may take liberties to show his audience the extremities of a situation, but with the core message still front and centre. After all, it is ultimately entertainment.

Moore cleverly uses montages at various points to highlight the history of gun violence, as well as what Moore attributes as a cause to the American gun obsession

Moore cleverly uses montages at various points to highlight the history of gun violence, as well as what Moore attributes as a cause to the American gun obsession. Happiness is a 'Warm Gun' by The Beatles plays over a series of videos of shootings, pro-gun adverts, and gun purchases giving a bite sized view into American gun culture in its recent history. Later on, What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong is played over historic footage of US military action and world wide violent scenes such as 9/11, leading him to discuss the role fear plays in creating violence, stemming from the government down. Relating it to the Columbine massacre, Moore alludes that the Lockheed Martin factory near to the school in Denver had as much to do with the shootings due to a ‘climate of fear’ in US domestic and foreign policy as figures such as Marilyn Manson or the Doom video game series which were both being blamed as influences at the time in the national press.

It would not be a Moore documentary without a couple more stunts. One of the most powerful scenes from any documentary by Moore is undoubtedly one that brought about real change. The perpetrators of Columbine bought their ammunition from Kmart, leading to Moore taking three Columbine survivors who still have bullets lodged in their bodies to the store, asking if they could have a refund on the ammunition. The stunt received media attention at the time of filming, so much so that Kmart relented under the pressure started by Moore and agreed to stop selling handgun ammunition days later.

Despite being 17 years old, Bowling for Columbine is sadly just as relevant. At the time, Columbine was the fourth deadliest shooting since 1949. Now, it’s the 14th. The great American love affair with firearms does not look like slowing down any time soon. If Columbine did not lead to great change in policy and culture in 1999 and Sandy Hook did not either in 2012, then Moore’s only Academy Award winning documentary is essential viewing in understanding why this might be.

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