Skip to comments.Bowling for Columbine - Truth or Fiction
Posted on 03/18/2003 6:30:36 AM PST by mbynack
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
Documentary or Fiction?
The first misconception to correct about Michael Moore's The Big One is that it is a documentary. It's not Moore doesn't make those. As was proven after the release of Moore's debut, Roger & Me, the director uses real people, places, and circumstances, then stages events (see Harlan Jacobson's piece in the November/ December 1989 Film Comment for more details). Reality a fragile commodity in any "fact-based" motion picture takes a back seat to what will play well on a movie screen. As a result, it's best to consider Moore's films as entries into the ever-growing category of pseudo (or "meta") documentaries. Or, perhaps even more accurately, view it as an exercise in self-publicity.
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine won at Cannes and has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category.
In Bowling, Moore continues to press the envelope of the pseudo-documentary. He surpasses The Blair Witch Project, but still falls short of the inspired genius of History of the World Part One.
Bowling fails the first requirement of a documentary: some foundation in the truth. In his earlier works, Moore shifted dates and sequences for the sake of drama, but at least the events depicted did occur. Most of the time. Bowling breaks that last link with factual reality. It makes its points by deceiving and by misleading the viewer. Statements are made which are false. The viewer is invited to draw inferences which the producer must have known were wrong. Dates are transposed and video carefully edited to create whatever effect is desired. Indeed, even speeches shown on screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled in the speaker's voice, but which he never uttered.
These occur with such frequency and seriousness as to rule out unintentional error. Any polite description would be inadequate, so let me be blunt. Bowling uses deliberate deception as its primary tool of persuasion and effect.
A film which does this may be a commercial success. It may be amusing, or it may be moving. But it is not a documentary.
Serious charges require serious evidence. The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or that its conclusions are incorrect. No, the point is that Bowling is deliberately, seriously, and consistently deceptive. A viewer cannot count upon any aspect of it, even when the viewer believes he is seeing video of an event occurring or a person speaking. Those are strong charges. Let's look at the evidence.
1. The "Revolving Door" and Willy Horton. To illustrate politicians' willingness to play the "race card," Bowling shows what purports to be a television ad run by George Bush, Sr., in his race against Governor Dukakis. The ad begins with a "revolving door" of justice, progresses to Willie Horton (whom Dukakis paroled after a murder conviction, and who is black), and ends with dramatic subtitle: "Willie Horton released. Then kills again."
Fact: Bowling splices together two different election ads, one run by the Bush campaign (featuring a revolving door, and not mentioning Horton) and another run by an independent expenditure campaign (naming Horton).
Fact: Apparently unsatisfied with splicing the ads, Bowling's editors added the subtitle "Willie Horton released. Then kills again."
Fact: Bowling's editors didn't bother to research the events before doctoring the ads. Horton's second arrest was not for murder.
2. NRA and the Reaction To Tragedy. The dominant theme in Bowling (and certainly the theme that has attracted most reviewers) is that NRA is callous toward slayings. The theme begins early in the film, and forms its ending, as Moore confronts Heston, asserting that he keeps going to the scene of tragedies to hold defiant rallies.
In order to make this theme fit the facts, however, Bowling repeatedly distorts the evidence.
Bowling portrays this with the following sequence:
Weeping children outside Columbine, explaining how near they had come to death and how their friends had just been murdered before their eyes;
Cut to Charleton Heston holding a musket over his head and happily proclaiming "I have only five words for you: 'from my cold, dead, hands'" to a cheering NRA crowd.
Cut to billboard advertising the meeting, while Moore in voiceover intones "Just ten days after the Columbine killings, despite the pleas of a community in mourning, Charleton Heston came to Denver and held a large pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association;"
Cut to Heston (supposedly) continuing speech... "I have a message from the Mayor, Mr. Wellington West, the Mayor of Denver. He sent me this; it says he gist of it is, 'don't come here. We don't want you here.' I say to the Mayor this is our country, as Americans we're free to travel whereever we want in our broad land. Don't come here? We're alerady here."
The portrayal is one of Heston and NRA arrogantly holding a protest rally in response to the deaths -- or, as one reviewer put it, "it seemed that Charlton Heston and others rushed to Littleton to hold rallies and demonstrations directly after the tragedy." [italics added].
Fact: The Denver event was not a demonstration relating to Columbine, but an annual meeting, whose place and date had been fixed years in advance.
Fact: At Denver, the NRA canceled all events (normally several days of committee meetings, sporting events, dinners, and rallies) save the annual members' meeting; that could not be cancelled because corporate law required that it be held.
Fact: Heston's "cold dead hands" speech, which leads off Moore's depiction of the Denver meeting, was not given at Denver after Columbine. It was given a year later in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a response to his being given the musket, a collector's piece, at that annual meeting. Bowling leads off with this speech, and then splices in footage which was taken in Denver and refers to Denver, to create the impression that the entire clip was taken at the Denver event.
Fact: When Bowling continues on to the speech which Heston did give in Denver, it carefully edits it to change its theme.
Moore's fabrication here cannot be described by any polite term. It is a lie, a fraud, and quite a few other things. I transcribed Heston's speech as Moore has it, and compared it to a news agency's transcript, color coding the passages. CLICK HERE for the comparison.
Moore has actually taken audio of seven sentences, from five different parts of the speech, and spliced them together, to create a speech that was never given. Each edit is cleverly covered by inserting a still or video footage for a few seconds.
Moore's first edit deletes Heston's announcement that NRA has in fact cancelled most of its meeting:
"As you know, we've cancelled the festivities, the fellowship we normally enjoy at our annual gatherings. This decision has perplexed a few and inconvenienced thousands. As your president, I apologize for that."
Moore then cuts to Heston noting that Denver's mayor asked NRA not to come, and shows Heston replying "I said to the Mayor: Don't come here? We're already here!" as if in defiance.
Actually, Moore put an edit right in the middle of the first sentence! Heston was actually saying "I said to the mayor, well, my reply to the mayor is, I volunteered for the war they wanted me to attend when I was 18 years old. Since then, I've run small errands for my country, from Nigeria to Vietnam. I know many of you here in this room could say the same thing."
Moore cuts it after "I said to the Mayor" and attaches a sentence from the end of the next paragraph: "As Americans, we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land." It thus becomes an arrogant "I said to the Mayor: as American's we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land."
Moore has Heston then triumphantly announce "Don't come here? We're already here!" Actually, that sentence is clipped from a segment five paragraphs farther on in the speech. There, what Heston actually is saying was:
"NRA members are in city hall, Fort Carson, NORAD, the Air Force Academy and the Olympic Training Center. And yes, NRA members are surely among the police and fire and SWAT team heroes who risked their lives to rescue the students at Columbine.
Don't come here? We're already here. This community is our home. Every community in America is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America. The Second Amendment ethic of lawful, responsible firearm ownership spans the broadest cross section of American life imaginable.
So, we have the same right as all other citizens to be here. To help shoulder the grief and share our sorrow and to offer our respectful, reassured voice to the national discourse that has erupted around this tragedy."
Don't take my word for it. Click here for CNS's full transcript of the speech.
Bowling continues its theme by juxtaposing another Heston speech with a school shooting at Mt. Morris, MI, just north of Flint, making the claim that right after the shooting, NRA came to the locale to stage a defiant rally.
Fact: Heston's speech was given at a "get out the vote" rally in Flint, which rally was held some eight months after the shooting.
Fact: That same day, Moore himself was hosting a similar rally in Flint, for the Green Party.
Bowling's thrust here is to convince the viewer that Heston intentionally holds defiant protests in response to a firearms tragedy. Judging from reviews, Bowling creates exactly that impression. Here are some samples of reviewer's writings: "Then, he [Heston] and his ilk held ANOTHER gun-rally shortly after another child/gun tragedy in Flint, MI where a 6-year old child shot and killed a 6-year old classmate (Heston claims in the final interview of the film that he didn't know this had just happened when he appeared." Click here for original; italics supplied] Another reviewer even came off with the impression that Heston"held another NRA rally in Flint, Michigan, just 48 hours after a 6 year old shot and killed a classmate in that same town."
Bowling persuaded these reviewers by deceiving them. There was no rally shortly after the tragedy, nor 48 hours after it. When Heston said he did not know of the shooting (which had happened eight months before, over a thousand miles from his home) he was undoubtedly telling the truth. The lie here is not that of Heston, but of Moore.
The sad part is that the lie has proven so successful. Moore's creative skills, which could be put to a good purpose, are instead used to convince the viewer that a truthful man is a liar and that things which did not occur, did.
That may win an award at Cannes. It may make some serious money. But it is a disgrace to the documentary creator's art.
3. Animated sequence equating NRA with KKK. In an animated history send-up, Bowling equates the NRA with the Klan, suggesting NRA was founded in 1871, "the same year that the Klan became an illegal terrorist organization." Bowling goes on to depict an NRA character helping to light a burning cross.
Fact: The Klan wasn't founded in 1871, but in 1866, and quickly became a terrorist organization. One might claim that it technically became an "illegal" terrorist organization with passage of the federal Ku Klux Klan Act and Enforcement Act in 1871. These criminalized interference with civil rights, and empowered the President to suspend habeas corpus and to use troops to suppress the Klan.
Fact: The Klan Act and Enforcement Act were signed into law by President Ulysess S. Grant. Grant used their provisions vigorously, suspending habeas corpus in South Carolina, sending troops into that and other states; under his leadership over 5,000 arrests were made and the Klan was dealt a serious (if all too short-lived) blow.
Fact: Grant's vigor in disrupting the Klan earned him unpopularity among many whites, but Frederick Douglass praised him, and an associate of Douglass wrote that African-Americans "will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services."
Fact: After Grant left the White House, the NRA elected him as its eighth president.
Fact: After Grant's term, the NRA elected General Philip Sheridan, who had removed the governors of Texas and Lousiana for failure to oppose Klan terror.
Fact: The affinity of NRA for enemies of the Klan is hardly surprising. The NRA was founded in New York by two former Union officers, its first president was an Army of the Potomac commander, and eight of its first ten presidents were Union veterans.
Fact: During the 1950s and 1960s, groups of blacks organized as NRA chapters in order to obtain surplus military rifles to fight off Klansmen.
4. Lockheed-Martin and Nuclear Missiles. Bowling for Columbine contains a sequence filmed at the Lockheed-Martin manufacturing facility, near Columbine. Moore interviews a PR fellow, shows missiles being built, and then asks whether knowledge that weapons of mass destruction were being built nearby might have motivated the Columbine shooters in committing their own mass slaying. After all, if their father worked on the missiles, "What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?" Moore intones that the missiles with their "Pentagon payloads" are trucked through the town "in the middle of the night while the children are asleep."
Soon after Bowling was released someone checked out the claim, and found that the Lockheed-Martin plant does not build weapons-type missiles; it makes rockets for launching satellites. In fact, one of its major projects is the ultimate in beating swords into plowshares: the Denver plant took Titan missiles which originally were designed to carry nuclear warheads, and coverted them so they could launch communications satellites and a moon mission instead.
Moore's website has his response:
"Well, first of all, the Lockheed PR people would disagree with your use of the term, "missile." They now call their Titan and Atlas missiles on which nuclear warheads were once (and still are but in less numbers) attached, "rockets." That's because the Lockheed rockets now take satellites into outer space. Some of them are weather satellites, some are telecommunications satellites, and some are top secret Pentagon projects (like the ones that are launched as spy satellites and others which are used to direct the launching of the nuclear missiles should the USA ever decide to use them). "
Nice try, Mike.
(1) Yes, some Titans and Atlases (54 of them) were used as ICBM launchers -- they were deactivated 25 years ago, long before the Columbine killers were born;
2) the fact that some are spy satellites which might be "used to direct the launching" (i.e., because they spot nukes being launched at the United States) is hardly what Moore was suggesting in the movie... it's hard to envision a killer making a moral equation between mass murder and a recon satellite, right?
Almost as hard as . . . being stirred at the thought of a moon mission vehicle going through town "in the middle of the night while the children are asleep," or a student deciding that since Dad coverts military Titans to peaceful purposes, homicide must be okay.
C'mon Mike, You got caught. And, as we will see below, the event is all too illustrative of Moore's approach. In producing a supposed "documentary," Moore simply changes facts when they don't suit his conclusion. The viewer cannot count on what he sees, or is told, having any relation to the real facts. As often as not, what is depicted was invented in the script writing, or created in the editing booth.
5. Shooting at Buell Elementary School in Michigan. Bowling depicts the juvenile shooter as a sympathetic youngster who just found a gun in his uncle's house and took it to school. "No one knew why the little boy wanted to shoot the little girl."
Fact: The little boy was the class bully, already suspended from school for stabbing another kid with a pencil. Since the incident, he has stabbed another child with a knife. (Sources for all data are given at the end of this section).
Fact: The uncle's house was the neighborhood crack-house. The uncle (together with the shooter's father, then serving a prison term for theft and cocaine possession, and his aunt and maternal grandmother) earned their living off drug dealing. The gun was stolen by one of the uncle's customers and purchased in exchange for drugs.
Bowling further depicts the shooter's mother as a victim of welfare reform, which forced her to work two jobs at low pay, to be evicted from her house, and to place the shooter in his uncle's house. "In order to get food stamps and health care for her children, Tamarla had to work as part of the State of Michigan's welfare-to-work program." "Although Tamarla worked up to 70 hours per week at the two jobs in the mall, she did not earn enough to pay her rent."
Fact: The shooter's mother had been promoted, and was making $7.85/hour, or about $1250 per month from that job, and an unknown amount from the other, plus food stamps and health benefits.
Fact: The rent for the house from which they were evicted was $300 a month.
Fact: Under the Michigan welfare reform, the family qualified for free child care and rent subsidies.
Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
6. The Taliban and American Aid. After discussing military assistance to various countries, Bowling asserts that the U.S. gave $245 million in aid to the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, and then shows aircraft hitting the twin towers to illustrate the result.
Fact: The aid in question was humanitarian assistance, given through UN and nongovernmental organizations, to relieve famine in Afghanistan.
7. Canadian Comparisons. Bowling compares the US to Canada, depicting the latter as an Eden of nonviolence and low homicide rates (despite having a plentiful supply of firearms). Only a cynic would suggest this might be linked to the film's Canadian funding.
Fact: Canada is hardly comparable to the far more urbanized United States. Violence rates correlate strongly to population density. Canada has about 3.3 persons per square kilometer; the U.S. about 29.1. Canada has only four cities with population over a million.
Fact: In 2001 (the most recent year for which FBI data are available State by State) the nine American states with land borders contiguous to Canada had an average homicide rate of 2.2 per 100,000 persons, far less than the rest of the US and not much above Canada's 1.8 rate. North Dakota, with a population density almost identical to that of Canada (3.5/sq. km.), had a homicide rate of 1.1, lower than that of Canada. Its Canadian neighbor, Manitoba, had a rate of 2.96. Quebec (1.89 rate) borders on Vermont (1.1) New York (5.0) and New Hampshire (1.4). Canadian data.
Fact: New York is of course a special case; most of its homicides occur in the urbanized southeast part of the State. If we look at the four New York counties which border on Canada (Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence and Jefferson), we find that in 2001 three counties had no homicides at all, and Jefferson County had one. Two of the counties also reported not a single theft that year.
Fact: If Bowling wanted to find areas where doors can be left unlocked, it did not need to go to Canada. Two of those four NY counties also reported not a single theft. 85% of U.S. counties reported no (as in zero) youth homicides in 1997; in any given year, about a third of them will report no homicides at all. In large expanses of the US, generally characterized by low population density, homicide is almost unknown.
Fact: Canada may have less racism than the US, but it is hardly exempt from that blight. During its heyday the Ku Klux Klan found Canada a good base for recruiting, and signed up 20,000 members in Saskatchewan alone. (Since blacks make up barely 1% of the Canadian population, the Canadian Klan focused on anti-semitism and bombing Catholic churches.)
9. Miscellaneous. Even the Canadian government is getting into the act. In one scene, Bowling shows Moore casually buying ammunition at an Ontario Walmart. Canadian officials have pointed out that the buy is either staged or illegal: Canadian law requires all ammunition buyers to present proper identification.
While we're at it: Bowling shows footage of a B-52 on display at the Air Force Academy, while Moore solemnly pronounces that the plaque under it "proudly proclaims that the plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve of 1972." Strangely, Moore does not show the plaque. Actually, the plaque reads that "Flying out of Utapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield in southeast Thailand, the crew of 'Diamond Lil' shot down a MIG northeast of Hanoi during 'Linebacker II' action on Christmas eve 1972." This is pretty mild compared to the rest of Bowling, granted. But it illustrates that the viewer can't even trust Bowling to honestly read the inscription on a plaque.
Moore's own assessment of Bowling is to the point: "It's funny, poignant and interesting, your perfect Saturday night out." That might of course be said of good comedic fiction.
For a documentary, though, one expects more. For example, truth.
The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or lacking in objectivity. One might hope that a documentary would be fair and objective, but nothing rules out a rousing polemic now and then.
The point is far more fundamental: Bowling for Columbine is dishonest. It is fraudulent. It fixes upon a theme, and advances it, whenever necessary, by deception. It even uses the audio/video editor to assemble a Heston speech that Heston did not give, and to turn sympathetic phrases into arrogant ones.
The bottom line: can a film be called a documentary when the viewer cannot trust an iota of it, not only the narration, but the video?
Postscript: Bowling For Columbine and Playing the Race Card
Since Bowling makes race and racism one of its themes, it is appropriate to examined Moore's own attitudes on the question. While Moore portrays himself as a man of the people, he actually is a rather boastful white millionaire with a streak of the puritan work ethic in which wealth proves worth:
No 19th century robber baron could have put it any better. In an interview after the Twin Towers tragedy, Moore opined that if blacks had been on the hijacked aircraft, things would have been different: they would not have taken the "dissing" and would not have been stopped by the hijackers' "tiny knives."
In Moore's world, blacks are no more than cardboard cutouts. They are either victims of welfare reform, or gangstas who can handle themselves in a knife fight. Whites, in contrast, can be human and complex -- even Marilyn Manson, a strange duck at best, is entitled to sympathetic treatment. Whites can be good (protestors, violence victims, prosecutors) or bad (corporate presidents, the military, Charleton Heston). But there is no room in Moore's world for . . . oh, say, any black American worthy of mention during Black History Month. Or Colin Powell. Or Martin Luther King. Or that guy whose kids go to school with yours.
Blacks literally become cardboard cutouts in Bowling's animated condensation of American history. After the Civil War, in this version, they desire only to live in peace and tranquility. The truth is that after that war, nearly 200,000 black veterans returned to their homes with their muskets, seeking freedom and equality. When the Klan and similar groups sought to prevent that by terror, many fought back. They formed black militia units and had some success at ambushing Klan raids and defending their homes.
There is history to be told here, heroic and tragic, but it is not to be found in Bowling. The concept of blacks standing up for their rights as Americans (or indeed standing up for anything else, or doing anything of note) does not fit Moore's vision.
Moore's concept of black Americans is essentially that of the plantation: blacks are either submissive and dependent, or dangerous.
Add to the list of Michiganders that must have injested something in the air or water. I was born and raised there northeast of Detroit and I was not brought up like any of these fools!
M & M and his "8 Mile". I used to cruise and drag race on that road and it's nothing like M & M describes in his movie.
Baghdad Bonoir another Michigander fool and his treason.
John Conyer, fool number 5 or 6 and his "impeach the President" folly.
Calrl Levin andother Michigan fool and his total obstruction to everything in the Bush agenda that is good for our country...especially his judicial nominees.
Are they all going nuts up there? I'm now glad that I moved south to Virginia in 1973. I got out before they were turned into pod people or experimented on and brainwashed on by aliens.
Director, Ministry of Truth
I'm game. I'm about to send them a copy.