Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Directed by Michael Moore

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Synopsis & Analysis
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is an effective, witty satire on America's obsession with firearms. Although it is often discussed as a work of non-fiction, Moore's documentary is better viewed as kin not to a scholarly investigation but to such works as Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Moore does not present a balanced history of his subject, nor does he give convincing reasoned arguments to persuade the viewer of his positions. He does, however, provide a funny and disturbing condemnation that is sure both to amuse and horrify the viewer.

In his efforts to elicit such emotions from the moviegoer, Moore usually makes use of those means best suited to his medium and avoids those unsuited to it. He thus joins relatively simple arguments with evocative visual and aural elements and largely dispenses with detailed examinations or complex discussions. By interspersing interviews with an inspired selection of persons, each of whom is likely to make a considerable impact on the viewer, with depictions of various dramatic and emotive situations and then suffusing nearly every scene of his movie with an incisive wittiness, the director poignantly reminds the viewer of the folly, cruelty, insensitivity, and general stupidity behind much of America's fascination with guns.

There are, admittedly, persons who, thinking that the director is providing them with a history of his subject, will be disappointed by the film's relatively simple content. Such individuals, however, are demanding that the movie be something which it is not. Moore has created a satire, not a work of scholarship, and, because complex arguments inevitably obstruct the production of humor, satire does not rely on reasoned discourse. The inclusion of such discussions would, therefore, have detracted from the quality of Moore's film.

What is more, since a satirical work moves the reader or viewer by means of humor rather than by convincing him through argumentation, even when reasoning is present in a satire, it merely serves to enhance the comic effect of the work in which it occurs. The reasoning of "A Modest Proposal," for example, is fatuous and funny. It does not present the reader with facts which it then rigorously analyzes. Similarly, Bowling for Columbine is a compelling satire because it simultaneously horrifies the viewer and makes him laugh, not because it rationally persuades him of anything.

Regrettably, while Moore successfully avoids complex discussions, the relatively simple reasons he does provide do not always complement his film. When arguments are given in a satire in support of its author's views, they should be cogent, and some of the assertions Moore makes are very poorly reasoned. For example, he blames gun violence in America largely on whites' fears of blacks and on the manipulation of those fears by the mass media. Racist anxieties have undoubtedly played a part in America's obsession with guns, but the situation is surely more complex, and a cartoon version of American history, like that Moore gives in his film, does not prove his argument, funny though it is. An examination of American history in a didactic work could provide insight into the issue at hand, but Moore's unconvincing discussion of historical reasons is just a distraction. Such reasons are far too complex to present in a work like Bowling for Columbine. Moore's simplifications do not provide satisfactory arguments and fail to address any possible criticisms of his thesis. Furthermore, because reasoning can only be effectively employed to deride the spurious arguments of those persons the satirist is mocking when the satirist's own reasoning is sound, and because Moore's reasoning is not convincing, the director reveals the weakness or even the falsity of his own arguments and so allows them to become objects of derision. His arguments, consequently, do not contribute to the movie's effectiveness. In fact, they are so dubious that they often distract the viewer from the evocative images and discussions that do so.

Despite these faults, Bowling for Columbine is a generally well made and disturbing satire on America's love of firearms.

Review by Keith Allen

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