The first misconception to correct about Michael Moore's The Big One is that it is a documentary. It's not Moore doesn't make those. As was proven after the release of Moore's debut, Roger & Me, the director uses real people, places, and circumstances, then stages events (see Harlan Jacobson's piece in the November/ December 1989 Film Comment for more details). Reality a fragile commodity in any "fact-based" motion picture takes a back seat to what will play well on a movie screen. As a result, it's best to consider Moore's films as entries into the ever-growing category of pseudo (or "meta") documentaries. Or, perhaps even more accurately, view it as an exercise in self-publicity.
The Michael Moore production Bowling for Columbine just won the Oscar for best documentary. Unfortunately, it is not a documentary.
Bowling fails the first requirement of a documentary: some foundation in the truth. In his earlier works, Moore shifted dates and sequences for the sake of drama, but at least the events depicted did occur. Most of the time. Bowling breaks that last link with factual reality. It makes its points by deceiving and by misleading the viewer. Statements are made which are false. Moore invites the reader to draw inferences which he must have known were wrong. Dates are transposed and video carefully edited to create whatever effect is desired. Indeed, even speeches shown on screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled in the speaker's voice, but which he never uttered.
These occur with such frequency and seriousness as to rule out unintentional error. Any polite description would be inadequate, so let me be blunt. Bowling uses deliberate deception as its primary tool of persuasion and effect.
A film which does this may be a commercial success. It may be amusing, or it may be moving. But it is not a documentary. One need only consult Rule 11 of the rules for the Academy Award: a documentary must be non-fictional, and even re-enactments (much less doctoring of a speech) must stress fact and not fiction. To the Academy voters, some silly rules were not a bar to giving the award. The documentary category, the one refuge for works which educated and informed, is now no more than another sub-category of entertainment.
Serious charges require serious evidence. The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or that its conclusions are incorrect. No, the point is that Bowling is deliberately, seriously, and consistently deceptive. A viewer cannot count upon any aspect of it, even when the viewer believes he is seeing video of an event occurring or a person speaking. But words are cheap. Let's look at the evidence.
1. Lockheed-Martin and Nuclear Missiles. Bowling for Columbine contains a sequence filmed at the Lockheed-Martin manufacturing facility, near Columbine. Moore interviews a PR fellow, shows missiles being built, and then asks whether knowledge that weapons of mass destruction were being built nearby might have motivated the Columbine shooters in committing their own mass slaying. After all, if their father worked on the missiles, "What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?" Moore intones that the missiles with their "Pentagon payloads" are trucked through the town "in the middle of the night while the children are asleep."
Soon after Bowling was released someone checked out the claim, and found that the Lockheed-Martin plant does not build weapons-type missiles; it makes rockets for launching satellites.
Moore's website has his response:
"Well, first of all, the Lockheed PR people would disagree with your use of the term, "missile." They now call their Titan and Atlas missiles on which nuclear warheads were once (and still are but in less numbers) attached, "rockets." That's because the Lockheed rockets now take satellites into outer space. Some of them are weather satellites, some are telecommunications satellites, and some are top secret Pentagon projects (like the ones that are launched as spy satellites and others which are used to direct the launching of the nuclear missiles should the USA ever decide to use them). "
Nice try, Mike.
(1) Yes, some Titans and Atlases (54 of them) were used as ICBM launchers -- they were deactivated 25 years ago, long before the Columbine killers were born;
(2) the fact that some are spy satellites which might be "used to direct the launching" (i.e., because they spot nukes being launched at the United States) is hardly what Moore was suggesting in the movie... it's hard to envision a killer making a moral equation between mass murder and a recon satellite, right?
(3) In fact, one of that plant's major projects was the ultimate in beating swords into plowshares: the Denver plant was in charge of taking the Titan missiles which originally had carried nuclear warheads, and coverting them to launch communications satellites and space exploration units instead.
C'mon Mike, You got caught. As we will see below, the event is all too illustrative of Moore's approach. In producing a supposed "documentary," Moore simply changes facts when they don't suit his theme. The viewer cannot count on what he sees, or is told, having any relation to facts. Whenever Moore desires, facts will be manufactured in the editing booth.
2. NRA and the Reaction To Tragedy. The dominant theme in Bowling (and certainly the theme that has attracted most reviewers) is that NRA is callous toward slayings. The theme begins early in the film, and forms its ending, as Moore confronts Heston, asserting that he keeps going to the scene of tragedies to hold defiant rallies.
In order to make this theme fit the facts, however, Bowling repeatedly distorts the evidence.
Bowling portrays this with the following sequence:
Weeping children outside Columbine, explaining how near they had come to death and how their friends had just been murdered before their eyes;
Cut to Charlton Heston holding a musket over his head and happily proclaiming "I have only five words for you: 'from my cold, dead, hands'" to a cheering NRA crowd.
Cut to billboard advertising the meeting, while Moore in voiceover intones "Just ten days after the Columbine killings, despite the pleas of a community in mourning, Charlton Heston came to Denver and held a large pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association;"
Cut to Heston (supposedly) continuing speech... "I have a message from the Mayor, Mr. Wellington West, the Mayor of Denver. He sent me this; it says 'don't come here. We don't want you here.' I say to the Mayor this is our country, as Americans we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land. Don't come here? We're already here."
The portrayal is one of Heston and NRA arrogantly holding a protest rally in response to the deaths -- or, as one reviewer put it, "it seemed that Charlton Heston and others rushed to Littleton to hold rallies and demonstrations directly after the tragedy." [italics added]. Moore successfully causes viewers to reach this conclusion. It is in fact false.
Fact: The Denver event was not a demonstration relating to Columbine, but an annual meeting, whose place and date had been fixed years in advance.
Fact: At Denver, the NRA canceled all events (normally several days of committee meetings, sporting events, dinners, and rallies) save the annual members' meeting; that could not be cancelled because corporate law required that it be held.
Fact: Heston's "cold dead hands" speech, which leads off Moore's depiction of the Denver meeting, was not given at Denver after Columbine. It was given a year later in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a response to his being given the musket, a collector's piece, at that annual meeting. Bowling leads off with this speech, and then splices in footage which was taken in Denver and refers to Denver, to create the impression that the entire clip was taken at the Denver event.
Fact: When Bowling continues on to the speech which Heston did give in Denver, it carefully edits it to change its theme.
Moore's fabrication here cannot be described by any polite term. It is a lie, a fraud, and quite a few other things. Carrying it out required a LOT of editing to mislead the viewer, as I will show below. I transcribed Heston's speech as Moore has it, and compared it to a news agency's transcript, color coding the passages. CLICK HERE for the comparison.
Moore has actually taken audio of seven sentences, from five different parts of the speech, and a section given in a different speech entirely, and spliced them together, to create a speech that was never given. Each edit is cleverly covered by inserting a still or video footage for a few seconds.
First, right after the weeping victims, Moore puts on Heston's "I have only five words for you . . . cold dead hands" statement, making it seem directed at them. As noted above, it's actually a thank-you speech given a year later to a meeting in North Carolina.
Moore then has an interlude -- a visual of a billboard and his narration. The interlude is vital. He can't cut directly to Heston's real Denver speech. If he did that, you might ask why Heston in mid-speech changed from a purple tie and lavender shirt to a white shirt and red tie. Or why the background draperies went from maroon to blue. Moore has to separate the two segments of this supposed speech to keep the viewer from noticing.
Moore then goes to show Heston speaking in Denver. His second edit (covered by splicing in a pan shot of the crowd at the meeting, while Heston's voice continues) deletes Heston's announcement that NRA has in fact cancelled most of its meeting:
"As you know, we've cancelled the festivities, the fellowship we normally enjoy at our annual gatherings. This decision has perplexed a few and inconvenienced thousands. As your president, I apologize for that."
Moore has to take that out -- it would blow his entire theme. Moore then cuts to Heston noting that Denver's mayor asked NRA not to come, and shows Heston replying "I said to the Mayor: Don't come here? We're already here!" as if in defiance.
Actually, Moore put an edit right in the middle of the first sentence! Heston was actually saying (with reference Heston's own WWII vet status) "I said to the mayor, well, my reply to the mayor is, I volunteered for the war they wanted me to attend when I was 18 years old. Since then, I've run small errands for my country, from Nigeria to Vietnam. I know many of you here in this room could say the same thing."
Moore cuts it after "I said to the Mayor" and attaches a sentence from the end of the next paragraph: "As Americans, we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land." It thus becomes an arrogant "I said to the Mayor: as American's we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land." He hides the deletion by cutting to footage of protestors and a still photo of the Mayor as Heston says "I said to the mayor," cutting back to Heston's face at "As Americans."
Moore has Heston then triumphantly announce "Don't come here? We're already here!" Actually, that sentence is clipped from a segment five paragraphs farther on in the speech. Again, Moore uses an editing trick to cover the doctoring. As Heston speaks, the video switches momentarily to a pan of the crowd, then back to Heston; the pan shot covers the doctoring.
What Heston actually is saying in "We're already here" was not the implied defiance, but rather this:
"NRA members are in city hall, Fort Carson, NORAD, the Air Force Academy and the Olympic Training Center. And yes, NRA members are surely among the police and fire and SWAT team heroes who risked their lives to rescue the students at Columbine.
Don't come here? We're already here. This community is our home. Every community in America is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America. The Second Amendment ethic of lawful, responsible firearm ownership spans the broadest cross section of American life imaginable.
So, we have the same right as all other citizens to be here. To help shoulder the grief and share our sorrow and to offer our respectful, reassured voice to the national discourse that has erupted around this tragedy."
Don't take my word for it. Click here for CNS's full transcript of the speech, and here for the comparison.
Bowling continues its theme by juxtaposing another Heston speech with a school shooting at Mt. Morris, MI, just north of Flint, making the claim that right after the shooting, NRA came to the locale to stage a defiant rally. In Moore's words, "Just as he did after the Columbine shooting, Charlton Heston showed up in Flint, to have a big pro-gun rally."
Fact: Heston's speech was given at a "get out the vote" rally in Flint, which rally was held when elections rolled around some eight months after the shooting.
Fact: Moore should remember. On the same day, Moore himself was hosting a similar rally in Flint, for the Green Party.
Bowling's thrust here is to convince the viewer that Heston intentionally holds defiant protests in response to a firearms tragedy. Judging from reviews, Bowling creates exactly that impression. Here are some samples of reviewer's writings: "Then, he [Heston] and his ilk held ANOTHER gun-rally shortly after another child/gun tragedy in Flint, MI where a 6-year old child shot and killed a 6-year old classmate (Heston claims in the final interview of the film that he didn't know this had just happened when he appeared." Click here for original; italics supplied] Another reviewer even came off with the impression that Heston"held another NRA rally in Flint, Michigan, just 48 hours after a 6 year old shot and killed a classmate in that same town."
Bowling persuaded these reviewers by deceiving them. There was no rally shortly after the tragedy, nor 48 hours after it. When Heston said he did not know of the shooting (which had happened eight months before his appearance, over a thousand miles from his home) he was undoubtedly telling the truth. The lie here is not that of Heston, but of Moore.
The sad part is that the lie has proven so successful. Moore's creative skills, which could be put to a good purpose, are instead used to convince the viewer that a truthful man is a liar and that things which did not occur, did.
That may win an award at Cannes. It may make some serious money. But it is a disgrace to the documentary creator's art.
3. Animated sequence equating NRA with KKK. In an animated history send-up, Bowling equates the NRA with the Klan, suggesting NRA was founded in 1871, "the same year that the Klan became an illegal terrorist organization." Bowling goes on to depict an NRA character helping to light a burning cross.
Fact: The Klan wasn't founded in 1871, but in 1866, and quickly became a terrorist organization. One might claim that it technically became an "illegal" terrorist organization with passage of the federal Ku Klux Klan Act and Enforcement Act in 1871. These criminalized interference with civil rights, and empowered the President to suspend habeas corpus and to use troops to suppress the Klan.
Fact: The Klan Act and Enforcement Act were signed into law by President Ulysess S. Grant. Grant used their provisions vigorously, suspending habeas corpus in South Carolina, sending troops into that and other states; under his leadership over 5,000 arrests were made and the Klan was dealt a serious (if all too short-lived) blow.
Fact: Grant's vigor in disrupting the Klan earned him unpopularity among many whites, but Frederick Douglass praised him, and an associate of Douglass wrote that African-Americans "will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services."
Fact: After Grant left the White House, the NRA elected him as its eighth president.
Fact: After Grant's term, the NRA elected General Philip Sheridan, who had removed the governors of Texas and Lousiana for failure to oppose Klan terror.
Fact: The affinity of NRA for enemies of the Klan is hardly surprising. The NRA was founded in New York by two former Union officers, its first president was an Army of the Potomac commander, and eight of its first ten presidents were Union veterans.
Fact: During the 1950s and 1960s, groups of blacks organized as NRA chapters in order to obtain surplus military rifles to fight off Klansmen.
Fact: The tradition continues. Moore does his best to suggest Heston is a racist. Heston picked discriminatory restaurants and from 1963 (i.e., when the civil rights movement was still struggling for support) worked with, and admired, Martin Luther King, and helped King break Hollywood's color barrier (the fact that there was a barrier illustrates how far Heston was in advance of the rest of the celebrity-types.) Here's Heston's comments at the 2001 Congress on Racial Equality Martin Luther King dinner (also attended by NRA's Executive Vice President, and presided over by NRA director, and CORE President, Roy Innes).
4. Shooting at Buell Elementary School in Michigan. Bowling depicts the juvenile shooter as a sympathetic youngster who just found a gun in his uncle's house and took it to school. "No one knew why the little boy wanted to shoot the little girl."
Fact: The little boy was the class bully, already suspended from school for stabbing another kid with a pencil. Since the incident, he has stabbed another child with a knife. (Sources for all data are given at the end of this section).
Fact: The uncle's house was the neighborhood crack-house. The uncle (together with the shooter's father, then serving a prison term for theft and cocaine possession, and his aunt and maternal grandmother) earned their living off drug dealing. The gun was stolen by one of the uncle's customers and purchased in exchange for drugs.
Bowling further depicts the shooter's mother as a victim of welfare reform, which forced her to work two jobs at low pay, to be evicted from her house, and to place the shooter in his uncle's house. "In order to get food stamps and health care for her children, Tamarla had to work as part of the State of Michigan's welfare-to-work program." "Although Tamarla worked up to 70 hours per week at the two jobs in the mall, she did not earn enough to pay her rent."
Fact: The shooter's mother had been promoted, and was making $7.85/hour, or about $1250 per month from that job, and an unknown amount from the other, plus food stamps and health benefits.
Fact: The rent for the house from which they were evicted was $300 a month.
Fact: Under the Michigan welfare reform, the family qualified for free child care and rent subsidies.
Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
5. The Taliban and American Aid. After discussing military assistance to various countries, Bowling asserts that the U.S. gave $245 million in aid to the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, and then shows aircraft hitting the twin towers to illustrate the result.
Fact: The aid in question was humanitarian assistance, given through UN and nongovernmental organizations, to relieve famine in Afghanistan.
6. Canadian Comparisons. Bowling compares the US to Canada, depicting the latter as an Eden of nonviolence and low homicide rates (despite having a plentiful supply of firearms). Only a cynic would suggest this might be linked to the film's Canadian funding.
Fact: Canada is hardly comparable to the far more urbanized United States. Violence rates correlate strongly to population density. Canada has about 3.3 persons per square kilometer; the U.S. about 29.1. Canada has only four cities with population over a million.
Fact: In 2001 (the most recent year for which FBI data are available State by State) the nine American states with land borders contiguous to Canada had an average homicide rate of 2.2 per 100,000 persons, far less than the rest of the US and not much above Canada's 1.8 rate. North Dakota, with a population density almost identical to that of Canada (3.5/sq. km.), had a homicide rate of 1.1, lower than that of Canada. Its Canadian neighbor, Manitoba, had a rate of 2.96. Quebec (1.89 rate) borders on Vermont (1.1) New York (5.0) and New Hampshire (1.4). Canadian data.
Fact: New York is of course a special case; most of its homicides occur in the urbanized southeast part of the State. If we look at the four New York counties which border on Canada (Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence and Jefferson), we find that in 2001 three counties had no homicides at all, and Jefferson County had one. Two of the counties also reported not a single theft that year.
Fact: If Bowling wanted to find areas where doors can be left unlocked, it did not need to go to Canada. Two of those four NY counties also reported not a single theft. 85% of U.S. counties reported no (as in zero) youth homicides in 1997; in any given year, about a third of them will report no homicides at all. In large expanses of the US, generally characterized by low population density, homicide is almost unknown.
If we want to be more specific and compare urban areas near the border, rather than states and provinces:
Canadian city homicide rates: Toronto 1; Montreal 3; Winnipeg 3; Windsor 4 (source)
US city homicide rates: Madison WI 1.4; Minneapolis 2.6; Bismarck ND 0 (not a typo, zero); Boise 2; Duluth 2 Portland ME 1.2 (source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2001)
7. Miscellaneous. Even the Canadian government is getting into the act. In one scene, Bowling shows Moore casually buying ammunition at an Ontario Walmart. He asks us to "look at what I, a foreign citizen, was able to do at a local Canadian Wal-Mart." He enters the store and buys several boxes of ammunition without a question being raised. "That's right. I could buy as much ammunition as I wanted, in Canada."
Canadian officials have pointed out that the buy is either staged or illegal: Canadian law requires all ammunition buyers to present proper identification. (The law, in effect since 1998, requires non-Canadians to present picture ID and a gun importation permit).
While we're at it: Bowling shows footage of a B-52 on display at the Air Force Academy, while Moore solemnly pronounces that the plaque under it "proudly proclaims that the plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve of 1972." Strangely, Moore does not show the plaque.
Actually, the plaque reads that "Flying out of Utapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield in southeast Thailand, the crew of 'Diamond Lil' shot down a MIG northeast of Hanoi during 'Linebacker II' action on Christmas eve 1972." This is pretty mild compared to the rest of Bowling, granted. But it illustrates that the viewer can't even trust Bowling to honestly read the inscription on a plaque.
8. Guns (supposedly the point of the film). A point worth making (although not strictly on theme here): Bowling's theme is, rather curiously, not opposed to firearms ownership.
After making out Canada to be a haven of peace and safety, Moore asks why. He proclaim that Canada has "a tremendous amount of gun ownership," somewhat under one gun per household. He visits Canadian shooting ranges, gun stores, and in the end proclaims "Canada is a gun loving, gun toting, gun crazy country!" (As I note above, he even goes so far as to exaggerate the ease with which you can buy ammunition there).
In the end he concludes that Canada isn't peaceful because it lacks guns and gun nuts, and attributes the different to the fact that the Canadian mass media isn't into constant hyping of fear and loathing, and the American media is.
So Bowling is actually not against guns, gun ownership, or even gun nuts. Outlaw television, not guns! Bowling is against, and as I point out, fraudulently against, Charlton Heston, and against the NRA. This is a bit anomalous, since Moore ultimately concludes that they are telling the truth, but nevermind.
Bowling's thrust here is thus a bit peculiar. Its total contribution on the gun issue is not an argument about guns, but a personal -- indeed a personal, vicious, and falsified -- attack on Heston and the NRA as a group. That's about it. Which may explain why the Brady Campaign/Million Moms issued a press release congratulating Moore on his Oscar nomination... without saying anything specific about his gun-related matters, instead referring repeatedly to NRA and Heston. Press release.
Moore's own assessment of Bowling is to the point: "It's funny, poignant and interesting, your perfect Saturday night out." That might of course be said of good comedic fiction.
For a documentary, though, one expects more. For example, truth.
The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or lacking in objectivity. One might hope that a documentary would be fair and objective, but nothing rules out a rousing polemic now and then.
The point is far more fundamental: Bowling for Columbine is dishonest. It is fraudulent. It fixes upon a theme, and advances it, whenever necessary, by deception. It even uses the audio/video editor to assemble a Heston speech that Heston did not give, and to turn sympathetic phrases into arrogant ones. You can't even trust the narrator to read you a plaque or show you a speech, for Pete's sake.
The bottom line: can a film be called a documentary when the viewer cannot trust an iota of it, not only the narration, but the video? I suppose film critics could debate that one for a long time, and some might prefer entertainment and effect to fact and truth. But the Academy Award rules here are specific. Rule 11 lays out "Special Rules for the Documentary Award." And it begins with the definition: "A documentary film is defined as a non-fiction motion picture . . . ." It goes on to say that a documentary doesn't always have to show the "actual occurrence": it can employ re-enactment, etc., "as long as the emphasis is on factual content and not on fiction."
So when awards night rolls around, we will see whether the Academy follows its own core rule, or decides to ignore it so long as the film is one attacking one Charlton Heston, and the NRA.
David T. Hardy [who has for the last year been working on his own, honest, second amendment documentary]
A few additions:
Wall Street Journal weights in on criticism of Bowling.
A list of some criticisms not given on this page, and reasons why.