Documentary filmmaker and gonzo-journalist Michael Moore is a divisive figure in the world of filmmaking, with his idiosyncratic style of investigation differing greatly from his genre peers. Winning the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for Fahrenheit 9/11 in a win that many recognise to be unjustified, there’s no denying that Moore breaks the density of documentary filmmaking, making crucial subjects accessible to general audiences.
One of his most significant projects, the 2002 documentary about gun violence and the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, unfortunately, remains one of his most pertinent, with tragic school shootings recurring on an annual basis. Most recently, the appalling events that occurred at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, have once again called America’s unfasten gun laws into question.
Even 20 years since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Bowling for Columbine remains a bold reminder of the nonsensical laws of American gun control, with little truly changing since the turn of the new millennium. Whilst grim reading, it’s important to remember that since the events of Columbine in 1999, over 220 school shootings have taken place across America, with over 300 young lives being lost as a result of such attacks.
Approaching the subject without much space for objectivity, Moore tackles gun control with a familiar bullish stance, but his anger here is very much justified, with the tragic facts of such brutal events proving surprisingly insufficient to sway the minds of stubborn patriotic Americans. Instead, Moore’s approach works best when he’s merely delving into the fabric of the nation’s past, exposing its many scars, fears and vulnerabilities in the wake of the 19th century Civil War.
At just two hours long, Moore doesn’t really have the time to tackle all that he wishes, delving into the history of American foreign policy to the tune of ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong, without the necessary context to add some oomph to his viewpoint. With that being said, his point is well and truly heard, offering an introductory view on the hypocrisy of the American government who often act as the aggressor overseas only to be surprised when they see their citizens act in similar ways.
Whilst some parts of Moore’s investigation may seem outdated, one section rings eerily true, speaking of the national climate of fear created by generations of American history. Describing the fear-mongering of the national media and government, the filmmaker encompasses this view in the short cartoon ‘A Brief History of the United States of America’ that well breaks down how the baton of panic has been passed from generation to generation.
Following this section, Moore explores how popular culture, rock music, video games and more were made to shoulder the burden of blame for such school shootings, whilst the actual laws that facilitate the crimes are sidelined. Speaking to the controversial figure Marilyn Manson, who was villainized at the time for his shocking music, also spoke of a culture of “fear and consumption”, wherein he explained the American people are kept in a figurative state of hypnosis where they are made to ‘fear’ by the news and, in turn, ‘consume’ as a form of medicine.
Receiving a 13-minute standing ovation at Cannes back in 2002, there’s no doubt that Bowling for Columbine holds a great deal of cultural importance, speaking about a difficult subject with an informed perspective that even manages to worm in the occasional moment of humour. In a nation that still hasn’t learned from the events of Columbine back in 1999, Moore’s documentary remains as urgent and as relevant as ever.