One of his more amusing scenes is when he finds a Michigan bank that will give a gun to anyone who opens an account. Moore turns up at the bank and is shown getting a rifle in short order. As he walks out, he holds up the gun and asks, "Do you think it's a little dangerous to be giving out guns in a bank?" The absurdity of it makes the bank look pretty stupid, and the audience laughs. But according to bank officials, they do not ordinarily hand over guns to their customers. Moore's people arranged this exchange well in advance. The required paperwork and waiting time for gun ownership was done long before the scene was shot and, as a favor to Moore, the rifle had been delivered to the bank so Moore could pick it up there rather than going to the gun dealer, as is ordinarily required. There is, indeed, a bank in Michigan that rewards those opening a long-term CD account with a gift certificate for a rifle instead of a toaster. That certainly says something about how Michiganders feel about guns. Nothing else in this scene, according to the bank official, has anything to do with reality.
There are other intriguing aspects of Michigan's gun culture that Moore presents. His blue collar appearance and manner get him interviews with members of the right-wing Michigan militia who look and talk like wacky refugees from the Jerry Springer Show as they insist on their constitutional right to bear arms. Even more extraordinary is Moore's interview with James Nichols, the brother of Terry Nichols who was convicted for helping Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. I felt that Moore was on a fishing expedition when he went to visit Nichols on his Michigan farm where his brother and McVeigh had practiced making small bombs. In the course of the filmed interview, during which James Nichols appeared tightly controlled, it looked to me as though he were repeating answers he must have given many times before. Moore somehow gets through to the weirdness behind the mask of reason. A strange smile comes over Nichols' face as he acknowledges that he sleeps with a loaded pistol under his pillow. Moore seems to bait him, asking: "Will you show us the gun?" Nichols agrees, but not on camera. He takes Moore into his bedroom and there, with the door ajar, we hear him proving to Moore that the gun is loaded by cocking it and putting it to his own head. Moore begs him to desist but certainly this weird moment is found art that only Moore could have created.
Michiganders obviously love their guns and some of them seem close to clinical paranoia. But the critical Michigan event in Moore's pastiche deals with the school near Flint, Mich., where a 6-year-old child shot a first grade classmate--the youngest such killing on record. This chilling event is the basis for Moore's confrontation with Charlton Heston.
Moore introduces the subject by interviewing the principal of the school. As she relates the story for Moore, she suddenly loses her composure and turns away from the camera in tears. This is another moment of found art, and Moore uses it. Nothing else she may have told Moore appears in the documentary. The grade school killing was front-page news all over the country. In the mass media, the killing was about a boy in first grade who was a bully and difficult to control in school. His teen-age mother had earlier been charged with child abuse but had not been convicted. She sent her children to live in a crackhouse where drugs were traded for guns. That is the story of race, poverty and violence with which Americans have become familiar. In Moore's documentary, the little boy's mother is a victim of Michigan's Welfare to Work program. She is forced to work two jobs at low wages a long bus ride away. She is being evicted from her home despite her efforts because she does not make enough money, and she sends the child to live with an uncle where--given U.S. gun culture--the boy finds the loaded pistol. Moore will go all the way to California to shame Dick Clark, whose restaurant received a tax break for hiring this boy's mother.
At the end of Moore's documentary, he films an interview with Heston, telling him he owes the people of that Michigan suburb an apology. This is the story of the rich and famous white American men who control the U.S. establishment, have abandoned social welfare programs, and blame their economic victims for the tragic results. Moore's confrontations with Clark and Heston are part of his underlying political interpretation of this grade school tragedy and his central thesis in Bowling for Columbine. His idea is that white Americans, since they first crossed the Atlantic, have been living in fear that generates violence against people of color. That is his take on U.S. history, on U.S. racism, on U.S. foreign policy. Our violence begets violence--that is his explanation of Bin Laden. And that, in the end, is why we have so many guns and why we kill so many people with them. He presents this argument using South Park-style cartoons. White America lives in fear of its victims. A corollary to this basic premise is that corporate America endorses fear because it fuels consumerism. Whatever you think about this idea, it is buttressed by the one example of solid empirical evidence presented in the film. Violence in America has actually been going down while the amount of time devoted to it on the nightly television news and the concerns of viewers has been going up dramatically. Moore's theories may not explain gun violence, but as a take on the national character of white male America--stupid, fearful, violent, consumerist--it will certainly be appreciated in some quarters. Moore not only creates weird moments, he scavenges footage with an unerring eye. He found shots of Bush looking weird, ill-at-ease and fearful: the perfect illustration of his theory.
This portrayal of the U.S. character has enormous appeal in Europe these days, and Moore is regarded as the closest thing the United States has to a mass-media, radical, left-wing presence. When Bowling for Columbine was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002, the audience gave Moore a standing ovation that lasted 13 minutes. The Cannes jury created a special award to honor the documentary. The French obviously loved Moore's ironic absurdity and they delighted in his left-leaning, anti-white American political take.
Moore's prototypical wacky white Americans are the members of the National Rifle Association (NRA), led until this summer by Heston, a famous Hollywood actor. The villain of Bowling for Columbine is Heston, then-president of the NRA. Moore portrays the NRA and Heston as callous indeed; spitefully coming to Denver to hold a rally immediately after Columbine. And then he has us believing that Heston and the NRA went to Michigan to promote their right to own guns after the 6-year-old killed his classmate. For those who care about truth, 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. Moore has edited and rearranged Heston's appearances and speeches to create the callous defiant white guy he attacks. The full speech that Heston gave in Denver and Moore's edited version are available on the Internet and readers can decide what to think for themselves.
Heston has used his reputation and charisma to rally the NRA as a political force in America. He has given aid and comfort to right-wing fanatics like the Michigan militia. You may believe that Heston deserved what he got, even if Moore's indictment of the man is tainted by deliberately misleading evidence. But if you care about the truth, you should know that the NRA did not rush defiantly to Denver after Columbine. It was their bad luck to have scheduled their annual meeting in Denver on a date that fell shortly after Columbine. The mayor of Denver asked them not to come. The NRA compromised, calling off all their festivities. Heston was in no way defiant about Columbine. His actual speech--as he gave it--I believe makes that clear to any fair-minded person. And Heston did not rush to Flint, Mich., after the grade school killing to champion gun ownership. He arrived months later on a tour of three states to get out the Republican vote. These facts are crucial to one's understanding of the final scene where Moore--the poor working-class stiff--confronts Heston--Hollywood's Moses.