20 years of Bowling for Columbine | The effect of a bomb

20 years ago, the film had the effect of a bomb. “It was a day like any other. The milkman delivered the milk, people went to work, and the President of the United States bombed another Asian country whose name he couldn’t pronounce…”

Posted at 8:15 a.m.

The first sentences of Bowling for Columbine are a reflection of the seminal work of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, which celebrates its 20and anniversary. This caustic pamphlet, as disturbing as it is comical, on the obsession of Americans for weapons won the Prix du 55 in May 2002.and anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

A few months later, he was crowned with the César for best foreign film as well as the Oscar for best documentary (in particular ahead of the animal documentary The migratory people, of the late French actor and director Jacques Perrin). To date, Michael Moore has never hit the bullseye so much.

What can explain the culture of violence in the United States? he asks in this film which has not aged a bit.

On average, in the early 2000s, 12,000 people a year were killed by gunshots in the United States. In 2021, the number of homicides with a firearm had climbed to 38,000… Enough to wonder if Michael Moore should not shoot the sequel to his film.

Twenty years ago, Moore sought to find out why, elsewhere in the West, comparable statistics were much less alarming. At the turn of the millennium, there were only 39 gun deaths on average per year in Japan, 68 homicides of the same type in Great Britain and 165 in Canada, where there were all the same 7 million weapons for approximately 30 million people, according to the filmmaker.

The title of his film, of course, refers to the 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two teenagers armed with US-legal automatic weapons and ammunition bought at the local Kmart shot their classmates on sight, after going bowling in a physical education class and before turning their guns against them. Twenty years later, we can see how this kind of killing has since become almost commonplace in the United States.

Bowling for Columbine is not only interested in the shooting of Littleton, where there is also a factory of Lockheed Martin, the largest manufacturer of weapons in the world (which Michael Moore will of course visit). The fear nurtured by George W. Bush after 9/11, believes the director, has boosted sales of arms giants, which are mostly American.

The documentary filmmaker meets members of a militia from Michigan, his home state, with which Timothy McVeigh, the famous terrorist responsible for the Oklahoma City explosion in 1995, trained.

Seeing these conspiratorial militiamen armed to the teeth again today, in the context of the conspiracy theories that have marked the pandemic, is chilling.

Since Roger & Me (1989), a gritty portrait of his hometown of Flint that he made when he was 35, Michael Moore, a left-wing activist with a gruff figure, always dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and a baseball cap , attacked capitalism in all its forms in his films (Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, Where To Invade Next).

This convinced pacifist, formidable rector of wrongs, has never done in the lace. Even if he does it with an irresistible humor, he delivers his very Manichean vision of the world. Pamphleteer and polemicist, the troublemaker sometimes turns corners. Bowling for Columbine is no exception. The idyllic image he gives of Canadians – who never lock their doors, even in Toronto – does not quite correspond to reality.

20 years ago, he incurred the ire of the conservative right, who accused him of being a traitor to the nation, an unpatriotic troublemaker, unfairly critical of President Bush Jr. during the invasion of Iraq.

“We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time when a man sends us to war for fictitious reasons, ”he said when receiving his Oscar for best documentary for Bowling for Columbine. “Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you ! “, he added, virulent, causing applause but also boos. Luckily no one had the idea of ​​going to slap him…


A scene from the documentary Bowling for Columbine, by Michael Moore

Bowling for Columbine was at the time the most popular documentary in history to compete for an Oscar. In 2004, after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Fahrenheit 9/11 – in which Michael Moore tore the US government to pieces with even less subtlety – became the highest-grossing documentary in US history, with North American box office receipts of US$120 million.

A success that has only galvanized the detractors of this icon of the populist left, this working-class hero without a university degree, this maskless vigilante who has become the itch of the American establishment.

The Moore method is of course questionable. The most famous of documentary filmmakers does not avoid shortcuts or excessive caricature. He usually presents only one side of the coin, that is to say a narrow vision of reality – the one that best serves his purpose – with the avowed aim of arousing indignation. This is true of most of his films, especially those made since Fahrenheit 9/11.

The assembly of Bowling for Columbine, made up of contrasts and comic effects, remains a tour de force 20 years later. The signing Michael Moore has never been so effective. His ironic narration, the guts of his interviews, his way of striking a chord.

There are moments of anthology in this documentary. Montage of violent archival footage of American interference that led to the installation of tyrannical regimes in South America and the Middle East, to music What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. The animated short film on the history of the maniacal report to the weapons of the Americans, by the creators of South Parkoriginally from Littleton.

And of course Michael Moore’s aborted interview with gun lobby spokesman and comedian Charlton Heston. “ From my cold, dead hands “, proudly says the interpreter of Ben Hur to National Rifle Association (NRA) activists gathered in Denver, Colorado, just ten days after the Columbine tragedy. Association of which one of the creeds is “ I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands (I will give you my weapon when you have snatched it from my cold and dead hands, that is to say: you will have to pass over my body).

If only for the images of Charlton Heston suddenly leaving the interview, annoyed at being caught in the act of racist remarks by Michael Moore, it is necessary to review Bowling for Columbine. A documentary which, 20 years later, has lost none of its striking force.

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20 years of Bowling for Columbine | The effect of a bomb