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MGM Studios DVD presents
Bowling for Columbine (2002)

"The one thing you can always count on is white America's fear of the black man."
- Michael Moore

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 17, 2003

Stars: Michael Moore
Other Stars: Dick Clark, Charlton Heston, James Nichols, Matt Stone, Marilyn Manson, George W. Bush
Director: Michael Moore

Manufacturer: Laser Pacific Media Corporation
MPAA Rating: R for some violent images and language
Run Time: 01h:59m:40s
Release Date: August 19, 2003
UPC: 027616882264
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- AB+B+ B+

DVD Review

My, how we Americans love our guns. What is it, exactly, in the American character, that leads so many of us to shoot one another? Just what is this deep-seated predilection for violence that manifests itself in so many ugly, destructive ways? Those questions are at the heart of Bowling for Columbine, which takes the 1999 massacre at a Littleton, Colorado high school by two disaffected students not as its principal subject, but as a launching point, for a discussion of just why it is so many of our fellow Americans are zealously trigger happy.

Let me admit up front that I come to this movie with some Michael Moore issues. Not because I find fault with his progressive politics (I agree with him on a great majority of topics), nor because he's occasionally a bit reckless with the facts—far more offensive, to my mind, is a relentlessly conservative cable news network continually pushing Rupert Murdoch's agenda will hypocritically assuring us that its coverage is fair and balanced. No, my principal issue with Moore is that his favorite subject, too much of the time, is Michael Moore; at times he strikes me as significantly brighter but no less self-promoting than, say, Gloria Allred. (The most dangerous place in America: between Gloria Allred and a television camera.) Look at the cover of the DVD case, and you'll find not a gun, or a compelling statistic, or a graphic representation of some aspect of the subject under discussion—you'll find a great big photograph of Michael Moore. I did not find this reassuring.

But perhaps the sobriety of his subject matter and the enormity of the task he's set himself brought out the best in Moore, for this film is smart, upsetting, brazen, frequently hilarious, and almost always provocative. Moore starts in his home state of Michigan, first at a bank where you can get a gun just for opening an account (as the director asks: "Do you think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?"), and then with the Michigan Militia, the organization armed to the teeth devoted to protecting our country; their former members include Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the terrorists responsible for the blowing up of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Moore then visits with Terry Nichols' brother James, a soybean farmer—he too was arrested in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing, but the charges against him were dropped. James Nichols is an unsettling, vindictive, disturbed man—he's got a .44 magnum under his pillow, and thinks that his ex-wife is responsible for almost all of his troubles. Also, he's never heard of Mahatma Gandhi and the power of non-violence. (You start to wonder if what's wrong with America isn't guns, but Michigan.)

Moore moves on to Colorado, and explores the town of Littleton, where the largest employer is Lockheed Martin; the film and Moore's argument are at their weakest, I'd say, when these crude analogies are being drawn, between the Columbine shooters and the missile makers, or in drawing some loose and unspecific connections between, say, the depositions of Allende in Chile and Mossadeq in Iran, on the one hand, and the rash of school shootings on the other. (Did Henry Kissinger's secret bombing of Cambodia lead to things like Columbine? If it did, why haven't there been more of these shootings, and why did it take so long for this particular fuse to burn?) Moore interviews Matt Stone, one of the creators of South Park, who grew up in Littleton; and he also speaks with Marilyn Manson, whose music was blamed in some circles for the gun violence of a few of his most crazed fans. Stone and Manson, to my mind, acquit themselves very well in these conversations.

And then there is Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association. At an NRA meeting in Denver shortly after Columbine, Moses clutches a rifle and promises his rapt audience: "From my cold dead hands!" What's Heston doing there? Does he think that the Second Amendment is the only part of the Constitution worth protecting? Is he rubbing it in the noses of those in the community affected by these shootings? It's hard to think that he isn't, especially when he shows up in Flint, Michigan, Moore's hometown, shortly after an even more horrible and inexplicable school shooting: a six-year-old boy brought his uncle's gun to school, and shot and killed a little girl in his first-grade class. Does even Heston think that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind?

Moore does a couple of ambush interviews, more for heat than light—one is with Dick Clark, who slams a car door in Moore's face, and another is with Heston, who walks out on an interview with Moore being conducted in Heston's own house. These feel like stunts—they are stunts—but they make their points, though obviously without much subtlety. Moore's politics and his filmmaking both seem more effective when he's got more of a plan—when, for instance, he shows up at K-Mart headquarters with a couple of survivors of the Columbine shooting and asks that K-Mart stop selling ammo (for it was at the Littleton K-Mart that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold purchased their rounds), Moore scores a resounding success: K-Mart vows to stop selling ammunition. Good for them.

My biggest concern about the reception of Moore's work is that he's preaching to the choir, that those whose minds he wishes so desperately to change are those most unlikely to see this movie. But that's their fault, and not the director's, and Moore's reputation and influence as one of the most effective rhetoricians on the American left are elevated and widened by this impressive, disturbing, dangerously entertaining documentary.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Much of the footage is archival, and of course it varies in quality; similarly, Moore's handheld filmmaking style doesn't lend itself to perfectly composed images, and the slightly ragged visual style is to be expected, even welcomed. That said, the transfer to DVD is first rate, with saturated blacks, an impressive palette, and little or no debris interfering with the image quality.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Balance is steady in the 5.1 track, and there's only a small amount of hiss to be discerned; the sound editors deserve high praise for making so many disparate bits of film blend together so well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by production assistants, interns and receptionists who worked on the film
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. audio introduction from Michael Moore
  2. Marilyn Manson music video: Fight Song
Extras Review: Moore offers a nice little audio introduction (03m:48s) to the film, pretty much thanking us for watching this DVD, and encouraging us to get involved; he's obviously a big DVD fan, but decided against doing a commentary track himself, feeling that everything he has to say is in the feature. Joining us on the commentary track, then, are eight people who worked on the film in various capacities down the old Hollywood food chain: production assistants, interns who graduated to production assistants, office receptionists, and the like. You've got to admire Moore's democratizing impulse, and the folks assembled to do the commentary all sound very nice, people you'd be happy to work with; unfortunately, they don't have a tremendous amount of insight, and there are too many of them. What's here is more of a record of their inside jokes and the good times they shared working on the feature, which is fine, but may not be worth two hours of your time.

Flip the disc over for the more rewarding aspects of the extras package. Moore discusses his night at the Oscars (15m:29s), and recaps his provocative speech for us, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he tells us, wouldn't grant permission for the use of a clip from the Oscar telecast. It was Moore's idea to bring up all of his fellow nominees, and he's very gracious, saying that he even welcomed the boos he received: "That's the noise of democracy."

Return to Denver/Littleton (25m:06s) shows Moore in an appearance at the University of Denver, in February 2003, six months after the theatrical release of the film; to an appreciative audience, he raises some more provocative questions that couldn't be explored in the movie. (Why, for instance, didn't the Littleton authorities enter the high school until two hours after Klebold and Harris had killed themselves, allowing at least one teacher to bleed to death, possibly unnecessarily?) His appearance is followed up by interviews with local TV stations and a book signing, which seems like so much DVD filler until one of the young women on line tells Moore that she was a Columbine student, and thanking him, through her tears, for his film.

A Film Festival Scrapbook (16m:42s) follows Moore and the movie to the red carpet at Cannes, where the film received a special award from a jury led by David Lynch; to Toronto, for a press conference, and to London, for an interview. Another interview (21m:04s) with Moore from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, conducted by former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, allows the director the opportunity to discuss his sleeping with the enemy, his producing books and movies for corporate conglomerates whose ideologies conflict vociferously with his; hey, as long as the check clears. In yet another interview (24m:44s) from The Charlie Rose Show, Moore parries points made by George Will in a previous Rose segment about the invasion of Iraq, along with promoting the picture.

As a Mac user, I couldn't access the DVD-ROM content, which promises both a Teacher's Guide and Mike's Action Guide; both are also available at Moore's website. A Marilyn Manson video, original trailer and clip (partially cannibalized for the feature) from Moore's TV series The Awful Truth round out the extras package.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

Michael Moore is in many ways more a polemicist than either a journalist or an entertainer, and if you don't share his political outlook (and maybe even if you do), he may not necessarily seem like the best messenger. But Bowling for Columbine is powerful, frequently persuasive, and consistently thought-provoking filmmaking, likely to start an intense discussion about the American national character even among the like-minded.

 


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