“Shame on You, Mr. Moore”
According to the strict definition, documentary means “of, relating to, or employing documentation in literature or art; factual, objective.” (Merriam-Webster Inc.) The film Bowling for Columbine, which was “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Moore,” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2002; the members of the Academy should have consulted their dictionaries (or at least their own qualification guidelines.) Bowling for Columbine, which is about gun violence in America, is many things: a filmed essay, a rant, even a tirade; it is not a documentary.
Alan Stone, writing in Psychiatric Times, notes that “no documentary is completely objective. Even when the camera is allowed to tell the story, the edited footage reflects the filmmaker’s subjectivity.” (Stone) Stone goes on to criticize Moore for, among other things, his abuse of the audience’s trust. While it is true that no documentary is ever completely separate from its makers’ point of view, most filmmakers usually go to great lengths to preserve objectivity. Michael Moore approaches things from the opposite direction – not only does he make no attempt to stay objective, he acts as a protagonist, eliciting material he can later shape to best fit his viewpoint. Moore’s previous film, Roger and Me (1989), was also widely accused of sloppy chronology and questionable “facts.” (Pesca)
Controversy has swamped Bowling for Columbine since it was released in August, 2002. Almost immediately, stories began appearing which contradicted many elements of Moore’s film. Because the Internet allows unprecedented opportunity for self-published “news and opinion,” it is difficult to find authoritative sources that examine individual inaccuracies contained within Bowling for Columbine. The film itself provides a case study on the new phenomena of “web rumors” being reported in the legitimate media as real news, whereby the rumors are strengthened and reinforced. Still, it is possible to cite many stories that appear over and over again wherever Bowling for Columbine is discussed.
Alan Stone writes that Moore “deceived and manipulated in making [this] documentary.” Stone goes on to examine two of the biggest objections commonly cited against the film.
- In the opening scene, Moore apparently receives a rifle immediately upon opening a new bank account. Many contend that although the bank does offer such a promotion, Moore’s film crew set up the incident well in advance so it would play best for the cameras (and it plays wonderfully). Actual procedure would have called for an external entity to perform a background check, and the bank itself wouldn’t have released the rifle – it would have been picked up from a gun dealer.
- Moore sets up the NRA and its president, Charleton Heston, as figurehead villains. He purposely edits Heston’s NRA convention speeches and juxtaposes them to make Heston and the NRA appear to be commenting on Moore’s subjects. As Stone writes, “these are deliberately doctored narratives in which Moore breaks faith with his audience. Moore goes from footage of the tragedy and the aftermath at Columbine in 1999 to a shot of a defiant Heston holding up a musket and uttering the famous line: ‘From my cold dead hands.’ The audience is made to believe that this happened in Denver within days of the Columbine tragedy. But Heston was presented that musket and uttered those words almost a year after Columbine and hundreds of miles away.” (Stone) Heston also did not appear at an NRA rally in Flint, Mich., immediately after a grade school shooting there. He arrived months later on a tour to get out the Republican vote.
Additionally, Mike Pesca (reporting for National Public Radio’s “On the Media”) identifies a few more prominent issues:
- Moore titled the movie Bowling for Columbine because, he suggests, the two kids who shot up Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado went to a 6 a.m. bowling class on the day of the attack. Police reports indicate the shooters skipped their bowling class that day.
- Moore suggests that “weapons of mass destruction” are manufactured at Lockheed Martin’s assembly plant in Littleton. Giant rockets are shown being assembled. Actually, Lockheed Martin’s plant in Littleton doesn’t make weapons – it makes space launch vehicles for TV satellites.
- Moore implies that while Canadians own almost as many guns as Americans, they don’t have the same level of gun violence because their news media doesn’t sensationalize violence like American television does. Mike Pesca points out that Canadian news programs only capture 40% of the Canadian audience – the rest watch American news. Moore ignores the fact that 7½ out of 8 million guns in Canada are rifles or shotguns – hand guns are not only hard to come by, they are prohibited for self-protection by law.
- When a state trooper tells the story of a hunter who was accidentally shot by his dog, we see what looks like a videotape of the incident. Michigan’s Director of Hunter Safety Education, Lieutenant Suzanne Koppelo, says that no such video was made at the scene of the accident. (Pesca)
Moore uses bits of advertisements and political campaign ads throughout the movie to strengthen his main points. There is considerable “Internet rumor” that some of the campaign ads were altered by Moore to slant them more appropriately to his message – limited proof of this can be verified by noting that each release of the movie (film, VHS, and DVD) has different versions of the infamous “Willie Horton” ad from the 1988 U.S. presidential election, the changes apparently having been made as a response to criticism regarding doctored footage. (For an interesting examination of this issue, see the website http://www.hardylaw.net/Truth_About_Bowling.html. As is typical, references aren’t supplied on this web site, so I won’t cite it as authoritative.) Again, while the charges of manipulation may or may not be true, the fact that yet another controversy exists around even such a minor facet of the movie casts a pall over the entire project.
Moore isn’t content to let his point rest on non-fictional source material – he also uses movie clips, songs, and other media. These aren’t used in a documentary sense – Moore assembles everything for dramatic impact. There are two sequences where “happy” songs are played over montages of horrific images. One of the sequences, using Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “It’s a Wonderful World,” is extended ad nauseum. The concept is a direct steal from director Barry Levinson, who used the same song to the same effect in his movie Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Even more interesting is the centerpiece of the movie, a three-minute cartoon called “A Brief History of the United States of America.” The cartoon humorously summarizes U.S. history in a “South Park”-style cartoon; the message is a perfect fit for Moore’s film (and again, there is criticism that the “facts” reported in the cartoon aren’t accurate.) What isn’t mentioned is that Moore commissioned the cartoon specifically for the movie from a company called FlickerLab – he even wrote the script. (Flickerlab)
The predominance of questionable material doesn’t render Moore’s ideas useless. The fact that many of the objections can be countered by Moore is also worth noting (and it keeps him in the news promoting his film.) Unfortunately, Bowling for Columbine is unique in the sheer volume of contention it has engendered; any viewer wishing to take it seriously must attempt to sort through enormous quantities of material. Moore will undoubtedly claim his message is more important than strict adherence to objective facts. If he claims this, his film is clearly no longer a documentary. But serious messages can be undermined by careless reporting, even in fictional pieces. For example, Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2001) is a fictionalized biography of mathematician John Nash. Howard used Nash’s story as a starting point for his meditation on the power of sacrificial, devoted love. Unfortunately, the audience is left with the impression that Nash’s real story is substantially what was shown onscreen; furthermore, many who were unfamiliar with the mental disease shown in the film (paranoid schizophrenia) were given a false impression of how it manifests itself in those who are afflicted by it. The audience is left thinking it has learned something about the real Nash and also about schizophrenia (much as many people who see Gone with the Wind think they have learned something about life in the South during the Civil War.) The more powerful the message is, the greater casualty to truth in the aftermath.
Michael Moore is like the wise-ass kid in every high school who seems to get away with things because people around him are too well mannered to tell him to shut up. He’s also the guy you don’t want on your side in a debate – he ends up hurting his own arguments because even those who agree with him don’t want to admit it. The film critic Pauline Kael described Moore as a “big shambling joker, who uses people as stooges and breaks faith with his audience.” (Stone) As Mike Pesca writes, “Michael Moore would have no career if he just called ahead for an appointment.” Again, while most documentary filmmakers take great pains to limit their subjective influence, Moore goes the opposite way and actually stars in his own movie. His encounters with Dick Clark and Charleton Heston are staged to suggest Clark’s and Heston’s callousness to the plight of gun victims – each scene is more about Moore’s reactions than it is about Clark’s or Heston’s comments. The viewer is meant to congratulate Moore on his gutsy confrontational style. Mostly we’re left feeling embarrassed for his targets.
All of this is unfortunate because Moore’s subject deserves serious consideration. By raising doubts about his material, Moore undermines his cause. Also, his inflammatory style isn’t meant to convince anyone who isn’t already on his side. Like conservative commentators on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum (such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly), Moore “preaches to the choir.” Often in a political debate, one side will cite an opposing party as their best asset – they know the other side will do more to drive people to their camp than their own arguments will.
Aside from quibbles about accuracy and questions of style in a documentary, has Moore made a good film on its own merits? I don’t think so. He laments the sensational style of American news programs but patterns his movie after them – it hasn’t been filmed as much as it has been assembled in the editing room. The movie emulates the wise-guy style of television comedies like South Park and The Simpsons (it features comments from South Park creator Trey Parker.) The overall feel is sloppy and boorish – which is pretty much how Moore himself comes across. The movie also feels interminable at 120 minutes. After a rousing start (Moore’s opening a bank account and receiving a gun), the momentum lags because the elements of the film don’t build on each other – anecdote follows anecdote with the only culmination being the staged confrontation with Heston at the end. (If Moore was going to the trouble to manipulate and fabricate material to begin with, he might have given himself a better dramatic arc.)
Moore seems to be using the “documentary” label as an excuse for having no filmmaking style. Documentaries are often given a pass on this because their nature emphasizes substance over style – extensive use of source material typically makes a unified visual scheme difficult at best. Moore should have taken his cue from director Oliver Stone, who elicited similar controversy with his (fictional) film JFK (1991). Stone took the side of conspiracy theorists regarding the murder of President John Kennedy, and he was justifiably pilloried for his excesses, despite the fact that he never tried to call his film a documentary. What is undeniable is the dramatic impact Stone achieved – no matter what other criticisms were made, Stone had fashioned a great movie. At the other extreme, Moore might have used D.A. Pennebaker’s terrific documentary The War Room (1993) as a starting point – in documenting the 1992 presidential election from the point of view of the Clinton/Gore campaign team, Pennebaker just let the cameras roll. What emerged was more powerful for the lack of comment (there is no narration at all) than it might otherwise have been. With Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore hasn’t achieved either a great movie or a great documentary.
When Moore received his Academy Award, he used the occasion to criticize President Bush for going to war with Iraq. He invited the other nominees onstage with him and said “[I] have invited my fellow documentary nominees on the stage with us, and we would like to — they’re here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or fiction of orange alerts we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you.” (Michael Moore’s Acceptance Speech at the Academy Awards) In true documentarian tradition, I will let the absurdity of this speech speak for itself.
Flickerlab. Web site. Available: http://www.flickerlab.com/. October 20 2003.
Merriam-Webster Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster, 1996.
Michael Moore’s Acceptance Speech at the Academy Awards. Web site. Centre for Research on Globalisation. Available: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/THO303B.html. October 21 2003.
Pesca, Mike. More Accurately. 2002. Web site. National Public Radio. Available: http://www.wnyc.org/onthemedia/transcripts/transcripts_120602_more.html. October 20 2003.
Stone, Alan A. “Breaking Faith: Bowling for Columbine.” Psychiatric Times (2003).