Rewatching Bowling for Columbine in the Era of Mass Shootings

By  · Published on August 10th, 2015

“Something is wrong in this country,” Tom Mauser says in front of a large crowd of people gathered to protest an NRA convention in Denver just eleven days after the mass shooting at Columbine High School where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before taking their own lives. It’s the statement, above all others, that resonates from the 1999 rally, through Bowling For Columbine’s release in 2002, to living rooms in 2015.

If you tilt your ears the right way, you can almost hear him say, “Something is still wrong in this country.”

Mauser’s 15-year-old son Daniel was killed during the attack, and we see Mauser in the film tearing up in front of the protest crowd and reflecting frustration when director Michael Moore asks him why Americans kill each other more than other advanced countries’ citizens. In the following years, Mauser became an activist and discovered firsthand the uneven nature of translating our emotional response to gun violence into action that might reduce it. When Bowling For Columbine came out, he even reviewed it, dismissing the stretched connections that Moore attempted to make between Columbine’s shooting and the town’s proximity to the largest weapon’s manufacturer in the world, but level-headedly praising the film for displaying difficult numbers. Emphasis his:

I appreciate this film because it asks questions about America’s problem with gun violence. One of the best moments for me was the film showing in bold, stark print the numbers of American gun murders compared to a sampling of other Free World countries, then asking WHY our numbers are SO much higher. I think many Americans are just so unaware of these shameful numbers. Moore didn’t imply the guns themselves were the cause ‐ for example, he said Canadians have lots of guns, also, but they don’t murder each other like we do.

Watching the film in 2015, it’s hard not to agree with such a purposeful, even-keeled assessment of the movie, coming from such a profoundly personal source.

The element that screams the loudest when watching the movie now is the impossibility of remaking it today. It feels unbelievably dated, not simply because the visuals are firmly rooted in the turn of the century, but because Moore’s approach to the Columbine event is as an outlier deserving of a spotlight. Even as he displays the numbers and mourns the death of Kayla Rolland ‐ the six-year-old girl killed by the youngest school shooter in US history ‐ his academic approach to Harris and Klebold sets them apart for special consideration. The documentary (as if the name didn’t offer the biggest hint) uses the calculated school shooting as the catalyst for the question at its core. “Why did these boys do what they did?” is reflected back as “How could this happen in America?”

This was Moore asking the existential question that the entire country was asking, but that question has morphed into something more grotesque in the intervening decade. A status that feels more enshrined. If Moore made a sequel to Bowling For Columbine today, the core question would have to be, “How could we keep letting this happen in America?” We were shocked by Columbine, but while there are still a number of emotions that surface, we’re no longer shocked by mass shootings. They are part of our landscape.

As a direct, brutal parallel, Rolland was thought to be the youngest school shooting victim when the film came out, ten years before the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. To make a sequel, Moore would have to place Columbine in the middle of a crowded field and ask a different question. Most depressing, it seems like a sequel we need. You watch Bowling now shaking your head and wondering why we haven’t left it behind, why we let parts of it feel so fresh.

The second thing that can’t be avoided when watching the movie now is the legacy that Moore has left behind, a legacy largely owed to the film itself and his aggressive personality. Bowling was a massive hit at the box office ($58m worldwide gross), with critics, and with award-givers (Cannes, Cesar, Oscars), and it cemented Moore’s position as a rare documentary star.

Watching Bowling when it came out as a freshman in college who was overeager to put his liberal brashness on display, Moore seemed like a truth-teller boldly (and playfully) giving a middle finger to The Powers That Be ‐ people who blamed everything but guns for an atrocity whose scope was made possible by guns. I watched the Columbine news and had to eat lunch in a high school cafeteria the next day. I had to listen to pundits proclaim that feeling lonely and listening to a very popular musician made these two young kids snap. I was their age, I often felt lonely in high school, I listened to Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, and I shot guns, too. The response to the Columbine massacre was one of the first times that I realized that a gigantic amount of adults didn’t know the answers to important problems, so when Moore came along with a thoughtful consideration of the factors at play, it was like a sinkhole opening up in my mind that was ready to absorb it all.

That feeling hadn’t gone away when I watched Bowling For Columbine again before a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 that took place outside of George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford Texas in 2004, but the magician’s hint of the sophistic tools that Moore was playing with was starting to show. For the 2015 version of me, there’s a large swath of Bowling for Columbine that’s embarrassing. The very kind of facile connections that Moore is faulting other thinkers for are asking to be scrutinized and found wanting. Huge amounts of padding that injure his better angels.

His gonzo drop-ins are annoying, and useless in terms of pursuing answers to a deep-seated issue. Ambushing Dick Clark for owning the restaurant chain where the mother of Rolland’s killer worked was moronic (and actively torpedoed his own shrewd condemnation of welfare-to-work programs), and to make a non-conversation with Charlton Heston the climax of the film is, at least here in 2015, a stunning misstep that reduces one of the largest modern social problems to a pissing match between two men. It’s a flaccid retread of his Roger and Me tactic that feels largely out of place and pointless here.

On the other hand (and unfortunately), Moore’s confrontational scenes are profoundly symbolic of the conversation this nation has had in the time since. People talking at each other, urgently attempting to score points or shrug meaningfully without any real change taking place. The irony is that the main thesis of the film is that America is different because the news media is constantly injecting fear into our culture and the individuals within it, creating a society that is under pressure, rattling a shaky trigger finger. As Moore closes with Heston walking away from his insistent questions, it uses similar narrative tactics to create false drama and distill a complex problem irreversibly down to binary. Are you with Moore (who stands stolid with the victims of gun violence)? Or with Heston (who walks away when the questions get hard)? This is the message limping inside the echo chamber.

The stupid cartoon where an anthropomorphic bullet gives a slanty history of the country is the worst offender ‐ a true conversation-ender that reduces everything in the worst way: sarcastically. It’s the kind of sneering victory that dittoheads inject to feel something, anything, but it sets the actual conversation back by a wide margin. You get the hint that Moore came up with the idea after chatting with South Park co-creator Matt Stone, deciding he needed his own cartoon mockery without possessing the skill to pull it off with any charm.

Stone, as it happens, makes one of the most chilling statements of the entire movie when he says that “Littleton is painfully average.” It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as a monster, but human beings, even ones from Anytown, USA, are capable of inflicting great pain on their neighbors.

There were a lot of sequences I’d forgotten from the movie. Namely Moore’s encounter with the Michigan Militia who came off as relatively sane, padding through the forest with guns slung and discussing their appreciation of living free. They are by far the calmest face of gun ownership given speaking time in the movie (including Moore), and the effect triples when Moore interviews James Nichols, suspected co-conspirator and brother or Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, right after.

Nichols represents the militant fundamentalist who acts as a reminder of what the debate surrounding guns is really about. Beneath the noise is a hidden conversation that’s not happening because it’s protected by the din of people talking past each other about the Second Amendment, sportsmanship, mental health and waiting periods. Like a call to your internet service provider’s customer support, the issue is batted around between different departments of thought before we all get hung up on.

For everyone asking whether a hobby is worth the deaths of so many innocent lives, Nichols stares too-wide-eyed into the camera as an avatar for all those who do not see gun ownership as a hobby, but as a necessary safeguard for the imagined, inevitable attack on their person by their own government. A doomsday cult that seems anxious and willing for the day to come when their paranoia will be justified. Nichols claims the federal agencies were terrified when they came to his farm because “they thought they were going to have another Waco,” and all of his answers suggest that he would have been happy to give it to them despite going peacefully.

The things I most remembered from the movie were, no surprise, the emotionally compelling sequences like the “What a Wonderful World” montage, the security cam footage from Columbine, and that damned cartoon bullet. It is the powerful poetic manipulations that stick while the rest of the conversation fades away. The only exceptions were Marilyn Manson’s sharp response to his critics and the sequence in Canada ‐ a chapter I remember vividly simply because of the television news reports that seem utterly boring and devoid of delicious fearmongering calories by comparison to US media. It makes sense, considering this was Moore’s answer to the question plaguing everyone. Don’t look to rock ’n’ roll, shoot ’em up games or action flicks; look to the terror we invent with a desk and teleprompter.

As a documentary, it’s a success in attempting to question a problem whose magnitude and regularity are unique to the United States, and Moore can absolutely tell a story. No denying that. As a persuasive argument, you only need to scope out the furiously inactive legislation on gun control to view the film as a failure. Maybe it’s unfair to ask that a documentary inform and enact change, but without it, the goals of the movie and its divisive director seem disgustingly ephemeral. It imbues Mauser’s response following the release of the film with a grand naivete. Surely, if people just saw the numbers, they’d demand change. Right?

Without change, Bowling For Columbine seems to laugh at us from the past. An artifact with fierce, blustery immediacy that asks why we haven’t put out a fire set decades ago.

That we say “Stay safe, [insert city name],” on a weekly basis. That we’re awaiting the sentence of one mass shooter when news of another mass shooting hits. That we consistently share this Onion headline when we’re fed up yet not sure what else to do. This is the tortured legacy of a movie that sought to question how two boys going to school in Colorado could do what they did.

Reviewing Bowling back in 2002, film critic Thomas Delapa of Boulder Weekly claimed that, “Moore’s timing couldn’t be better aimed for all Americans to search in their heart of hearts and ask why we live in a pathological gun culture.” Here in 2015, we know better.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.