Lock your doors and open your minds, America. Michael Moore is armed again.
In Bowling for Columbine, his rambunctious, disturbing, often hilarious new documentary, the leftie perp of Roger & Me and the best-seller Stupid White Men examines America's gun culture. Why do we love to shoot and kill things? And why do we shoot and kill people at rates obscenely higher than those of other countries?
Columbine is a Molotov cocktail of interviews, cartoons, news footage and righteous rabble-rousing. It is also a road movie in search of the troubled soul of America. As Moore told TIME: "It's a film about why we're so violent toward each other, and why we tend to export a lot of this violence around the world. Because otherwise we're actually pretty good people."
Moore, 48, made his name tracking down and confronting corporate executives a tactic that, in his hands, looked less like investigative journalism than self-promotion and stalking. This time he quizzes Charlton Heston on the propriety of proclaiming, at an n.r.a. convention in Littleton, Colo., just 10 days after the Columbine shootings, that his gun will have to be pried "from my cold, dead hands." (At first the star is courteous, but Moore's questions provoke him to terminate the interview, leaving Moore alone --in Heston's house.) In most respects, though, the film is crisper than Moore's earlier work it's a handsomely assembled essay in words and pictures and less given to finger pointing than head scratching.
Moore also looks within. In high school in Flint, Mich., he won a marksmanship award. He is an N.R.A. member who says he wanted to run against Heston for the presidency. He likes guns. He may hear echoes of his youth in the words of a Michigan militia member: "It's an American responsibility to be armed. If you're not armed, you're not responsible." The director is a little spooked by James Nichols, tofu farmer and brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry, who shows Moore the loaded Magnum .44 under his pillow and points it at his own temple. Nichols stops short of saying people have the right to weapons-grade plutonium. After all, he sagely notes, "there's wackos out there."
Moore is an ace propagandist. He employs excoriating anger (a zippy montage critical of U.S. interventionism, from installing the Shah of Iran in 1953 to giving $245 million in foreign aid to Taliban-run Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001), then switches to breezy humor (a larkish, South Park ish animation on whites' fear of blacks). To a former producer of Cops, he suggests a spin-off: Corporate Cops, in which guys like Ken Lay would be strip-searched.
Moore does his own legwork too. He pestered K Mart until the retailer stopped selling ammunition, some of which had ended up in the bodies of Columbine students. He unearthed a phone call to Littleton police on the morning of the shootings from the father of Eric Harris, one of the killers, anguished that his son might be involved. And there is the film's clip of a TV reporter on the Columbine crime scene announcing that "Harris' diary also detailed ideas about hijacking an airplane and crashing into New York City."
If there's one part of America that Moore loves, it's Canada a country with plenty of guns, poverty and violent films, but a murder rate one-twelfth that of the U.S. He speculates that the reason may be its less sensational media and more enlightened politicians. If he has no answers to U.S. violence, he does offer some scapegoats. He blames TV news for creating a climate of unjustified fear (reports of killings have risen 600%, he says, while the murder rate has decreased 20%) and the Executive Branch for an us-vs.-them foreign policy.
All this agitating has made Moore rich. But what is more American than a plutocrat populist? And don't expect the left's biggest star to trend centerward; this is one pacifist who will stick to his guns. So watch out, America: if you act up, this bearded bear with a camera just may shoot you.