If you're a fan of the baseball-cap-wearin', Nader-votin', muckrakin', best-sellin', corporation-confrontin' son of a gun known as Michael Moore, all you need to know about his latest film, Bowling for Columbine, is that it's more of the same. You know, the mix of easy humor, political potshots, attempts (some successful, most not) at interviewing and confronting corporate crooks and the odd emotional sucker punch that'll leave you in horror until he comes back with a laugh a few minutes later. Tonal shifts are what Moore does best -- there are numerous moments in this film, as in Roger and Me, that may make you cry, but by the end you'll be laughing again, yet doing so in a manner that neither negates nor trivializes the impact of his more serious points.
The movie's a look at the United States gun culture, an exploration provoked by the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 (before the killing spree, Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went bowling, hence the title). As he first shows up on camera, Moore is opening a bank account at a financial institution that gives its patrons free guns. Later, he buys bullets in a barbershop. Soon he's hanging out with the Michigan Militia, the group to which Timothy McVeigh infamously belonged, and they lead him to James Nichols, brother of McVeigh's co-conspirator Terry. Nichols proves both scary and unintentionally hilarious, blaming his troubles with the law solely on his ex-wife, advocating armed revolt and, when asked by Moore what he thinks about Gandhi's philosophy, pausing to declare, "I'm not familiar with that."
Conservatives, if they plan on lining Moore's pockets with ticket money and actually seeing this thing, may well go in on the defensive, and why not? Moore's generally known for criticizing all their beliefs. But there's one liberal standby that goes unsaid: No one in the film ever mentions or advocates gun control. The film will probably surprise many liberals, too, with its look at guns in other countries -- turns out Canadians love their firearms as much as we do, yet they don't even lock their front doors.
Where Bowling for Columbine is at its most valuable is in its examination of America's culture of fear as a root cause of gun violence. Fears of race, scary TV news stories, Y2K and others are all shown as examples, with a particularly hilarious (and genuine) news story on "Africanized" killer bees. Why fear and paranoia are so pervasive over here isn't clear, though Marilyn Manson shows up with a plausible explanation: "Keep everyone afraid, and they'll consume" (his own career is perhaps proof of that much).
The film's biggest weakness is that it doesn't always stay on point and occasionally goes for the cheap shot, but Moore's on the ball when he uses humor to make his points, though he tends to overcompensate: A montage of CIA atrocities set to Louis Armstrong music is used to negate an average guy's pro-America outlook, and Moore might as well be squashing a fly with a mallet.
This brings up another question: Can't Moore find a conservative who's a good debater? It seems that any time he actually manages to confront a heavy hitter, said big shot merely walks away or slams the door when confronted with a question he or she doesn't like. It makes the exchanges all seem one-sided. As a result, the film's not as informative as it could be; as Web sites like Spinsanity.org have documented, Moore can get sloppy with his fact-checking. Now, if an ideologue from the opposite end of the spectrum -- say, Bill O'Reilly or someone like that -- were to debate Moore on camera, that would be interesting.