Hot off the success of his best-selling book Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, guerrilla documentarian Michael Moore has struck it big again with his latest film, Bowling for Columbine. The documentary, which garnered high praise and strong ticket sales in limited release last fall, claims to be a meditation on American gun violence. But it functions as a summation of lefty gripes about life in these United States. It is also a good summation of the progressive left's intellectual impotence. The movie is really a feckless collection of sad plaints for which Moore offers only the barest glimmer of hope for a solution.
To Moore—allegedly a very funny guy—America is a naked city full of 260 million stories, all of them bummers. We see deluded Michigan militia men prancing through the woods, scary hidden-camera shots of the Columbine massacre with anguished 911 calls superimposed, and a black woman navigating perilously between the Scylla of having a crappy service job and the Charybdis of not having a crappy service job. And of course, lots and lots of shooting deaths.
One of the points Moore tries to make is that our media want to scare us to death. He suggests the resulting unease makes us want to stockpile guns. Strange, then, that Moore himself indulges in misleading fearmongering. Firearm homicides in America fell from 1991 to 1999 by nearly 40 percent, but somehow Moore left that fact on the cutting-room floor.
Instead, Moore clubs his audience with the news that the world is sad. Young men are driven to mass killing by high school status games. Six-year-olds kill 6-year-olds because their mothers have to work. Factories close down. He even plays Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" over scenes of stacked corpses.
But except for one scene—in which Our Hero himself apparently pressures Kmart into promising to phase out ammunition sales—Moore offers no suggestions for how to make America a less depressing place. He raises many of the obvious explanations for the high number of American shooting deaths—our violent history, our violent pop culture, the presence of so many weapons—and then debunks them all. Bowling for Columbine does not make a pro-gun control case. It is more existential nightmare than political document.
Critics have picked on Bowling for Columbine's final scene as an example of Moore's tendency to go too far. He corners Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, and asks him some tough questions about America's high shooting death numbers—questions Moore himself couldn't answer. Heston stumbles toward mentioning our ethnic composition, then realizes he'd better stop. Moore tries to show Heston a photo of a kid gunned down by another kid. Moses stumbles imperiously away and doesn't look back.
Moore is not being cruel to an old man. The head of an organization standing for gun rights should damned well be prepared to address emotional anecdotal arguments against guns. Yet Moore, like Heston, ultimately walks away from his toughest question. In the end, the only explanation for each individual gun death is an individual's choice to pull a trigger. Grand sociological theorizing can't provide the thousands of separate answers to why thousands of individuals made that choice. Any pressures of background or culture or poverty that weighed on shooters weighed similarly on thousands of nonshooters. In the end, Moore, like the progressive left he claims to represent, has no solutions—just laments, tears, and tragedies.
Two days before the November elections, Moore used his Web site to exhort fans to vote and predicted that "Tuesday is the day! The day that George W. gets taught a long overdue lesson. The day that we, the MAJORITY—the 52% who never elected him—get our chance to reclaim a bit of our former democracy."
It didn't work. Weeping laments may sell tickets—moviegoers have always loved tragedy. But a clown's tears aren't enough for a lively and effective political movement.