Monday, October 21, 2019

Gun Culture: Why Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' Matters Now More Than Ever

Great satirical films hold up over time. Their messages keep resonating because the flaws they diagnose persist

By Sophia A. McClennan

OCT 19, 2019 - On Saturday, October 19 at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC aired a special screening of Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” followed by a live interview between Moore and Ari Melber, host of “The Beat.” 

Originally released in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks, the film explores the circumstances leading up to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the violent culture that fostered it.

The film is worth watching (or re-watching) for the simple fact that it drives home the painful reality that our nation has failed to act to reduce gun violence. As Moore explained in an interview preceding the special screening, “The day the Columbine shooting happened, that afternoon, my crew and I decided we have to do something about this. We have to make a documentary about this and we have to make sure that there is not another — I remember saying this that day — that there is never another school shooting. Sadly, now we are some 17 years later and there was more than one Columbine.”

At the time, the focus of the film was the gun culture that spawned the Columbine shootings. As the film opens, it sets the scene for the Columbine shootings by describing it as a “typical day.” The message is clear: Columbine was not an anomaly; it was a predictable consequence in a society that glorifies guns more than human life.

In scene after scene, from a bank that hands out guns to a mom who thinks the only way to protect her kids is by being armed, the film digs into the disturbing ways that gun culture has been not just justified, but normalized in the United States. Moore conducts a series of interviews with a wide range of gun owners — militia members, suburban housewives, farmers and more — all of whom are happy explain that they only feel safe if they have weapons.

In Moore’s artful style of satire, he often lets his interviewee reveal the flaws in their own logic. After a Lockheed Martin executive explains that he thinks the problem at Columbine was anger management, Moore asks, “You don’t think our kids think to themselves, well gee, dad goes off to the factory every day and he builds missiles, these were weapons of mass destruction. What’s the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?” When the executive responds that he doesn’t see the connection, he makes Moore’s ironic point for him. At other times, he gently asks a reasonable question that underscores irrational, illogical, or incomprehensible actions: After he gets a gun from a Michigan bank handing them out to new customers, he asks, “Do you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”

Great films hold up over time. They are worth watching for the art of their style, for their messages, and for the ways that they remind us of their context. Satirical films also help us think through moments when society was caught up in habits and behaviors that were profoundly irrational, destructive or delusional. Their messages continue to resonate because the flaws they diagnose persist. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I l Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” for example, continues to offer poignant commentary on toxic military masculinity.

“Bowling for Columbine” is worth screening today for all of those reasons.

But now, 17 years later, the film has another message. Watching the film today it becomes abundantly clear that our problem isn’t gun culture; the problem is that we have failed to do anything about it. Every message and every argument about the problems of U.S. gun culture appear in the film. They are all there.