Monday, September 01, 2003


Just a couple of hours ago, I watched Michael Moore's controversial "Bowling for Columbine" for the first time. Immediately afterward, with the help of Google, I looked up some of the criticisms that have been leveled at it by the right wing, and came to the conclusion that they might have a point or two or three.

First of all, the bank sequence. Moore's central point is correct: You can get a free gun for opening a CD account, and the fact that a waiting period for a background check is required is mentioned twice. However, some viewers may miss those remarks, and the editing may lead them to believe you can just walk in, open an account and leave with a gun, all in just a matter of minutes. Also, some of the critics have claimed that you generally can't pick up a long gun at the bank itself, that you have to go to a sporting goods store that has a deal with the bank. From what I can gather, both from what critics have charged and what Moore's defense is, I'm assuming here that Moore made special arrangements with the bank to pick up the gun at the branch.

Sounds to me like Moore "sexed up" (as they say in the UK) this sequence for dramatic purposes, but no one denies that the bank gives out guns as a premium for opening a CD account.

Second, the Willie Horton ad. There is some text superimposed over the notorious 1988 "revolving door" ad, which was funded by the Bush/Quayle campaign, saying something along the lines that Willie Horton was furloughed out into society where he could kill again. (I probably don't have that exactly correct, but I can't recheck it because I already returned the DVD to the video store.) Now, I saw that ad when it aired, and like many of Moore's critics, I don't recall that text being there. I'm guessing that one of two things happened: either Moore "sexed up" this sequence himself or, more likely, superimposed the other, even more notorious Willie Horton ad – which was not an official Bush/Quayle ad – over the revolving door commercial.

Third, the Charlton Heston sequence. I've seen some general criticism of the editing, but nothing specific enough for me to judge it as dishonest. Yes, there seems to be some time-shortening, but nothing that is really unethical. You've probably seen a lot worse on "60 Minutes."

Finally, lies, damn lies and statistics. I wish Moore had used per-capita gun murder statistics rather than just raw numbers. He still could've made his point very well, since per-capita US gun murders are still much, much higher than Canadian or European rates. But IMHO using raw numbers is dishonest when, say, comparing a 300 million population country, the US, to a 30 million population country, Canada. The per-capita rates are damning enough, Michael, and it's more honest to use them.

Now, let me try to put these comments in perspective. When I started looking at the criticisms of BFC, I was reminded of another documentary I saw about 20 years ago called "Six O'clock and All's Well," which was a student-directed film that examined the inner workings of a local TV newscast, in this case that of New York's ABC-owned WABC-TV. What was mind-boggling at the time for me was how many of the stories covered were staged to a certain degree; in one story, numerous retakes were done until the interviewee finally expressed the appropriate amount of dramatic enthusiasm. And the TV crew displayed an attitude of "This is just standard operating procedure."

My educated guess is that nothing in BFC is any more "staged" than what you might see on your local newscast or network magazine show. Yeah, I'm a bit bothered by it, but at least Moore doesn't pretend to be a journalist. He's a leftist documentarian who uses a camera and microphones in much the same way a commentator or pundit uses a word processor and search engine.

As far as the distortions and misrepresentations, well, they bother me too – but again they're relatively minor faults. You'll find far more and far worse distortions and misrepresentations in, say, five minutes of Rush Limbaugh's show than you'll find in two hours of BFC. And Moore's sins also don't reach the incredible level of dishonesty that the New York Times displayed in its "investigative reporting" of the phony Whitewater "scandal."

All that said, "Bowling for Columbine" is an excellent, thought-provoking documentary. It would've been so easy to blame guns, or video games, or music videos, or lack of prayer in school for irrational acts of violence like the killings at Columbine High School. Moore examines these arguments and, based on good, hard evidence from home and abroad, finds them all lacking. Then he comes up with another possibility: the culture of fear in the US. Constantly bombarded with media messages that instill Fear of "The Other," we Americans come to believe that violence is our only protection against evil, our safety net that keeps the bad guys away from us. Violence solves all. "Shoot first, ask questions later." "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." Is that not The American Way?

One final point about "balance." I've never been convinced of the need for balance in journalism or in documentaries with a point of view, like BFC. To use the most obvious example, if you're doing a documentary about World War 2 death camps, should you have to present a positive take on the Nazi perspective in order to have balance? Another of my favorite documentaries is Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line," about an innocent man who was sentenced to death for murdering a policeman in Texas. Should Morris have "balanced" TTBL by presenting a positive view of the local D.A.'s quest for vengeance against cop-killers? No, a great documentary can be a skillfully argued point of view; it doesn't have to be a balanced debate.

"Bowling for Columbine" very skillfully presents its arguments in a generally fair manner, with some lapses, but it most definitely is not balanced.

And that's okay.

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