Plot: What’s it about?
There are very few defining moments in a generation, but I will never forget hearing the news and seeing the images of the Columbine shooting. I was just shy of my fourteenth birthday by a month and school was winding down in my freshman year of high school. Living in Arkansas we had already seen the Jonesboro shooting one year earlier that had taken the lives of four students and a teacher. At the time of Columbine, that was the defining school shooting in our lives and seemed unthinkable that more would occur outside of random acts of gang violence. Then Columbine happened and the world changed. Twelve students and one teacher were killed and twenty four injured when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, just weeks shy of graduation, attacked their school with homemade explosives, rifles, and shotguns. In the firefight with the police that ensued, the attackers killed themselves. As this played out on televisions in schools across the country, the nation was collectively sick with grief and disbelief.
In the wake of this tragedy, a Michael Moore (who was most famous for the acclaimed documentary Roger and Me) decided he would make a film about the violence that afflicted our country. Conducting interviews all over the country and in Canada, Moore tried to find out what was so different about Americans that we should have so much gun violence in comparison to the rest of the world. Along the way he also questioned why the media had demonized rock stars in the wake of the tragedy instead of the violence inflicted by our government. Why does the NRA always conduct rallies in the wake of a tragedy? What differences between Canada and America can be discerned to account for the difference in homicides?
Moore is a documentary filmmaker but the emphasis is on filmmaker. His films are coming from a hard-lined slant and are manipulative to achieve his goals. I say this as somebody who actually likes his films (for the most part.) I remember seeing Bowling for Columbine in the theaters. It is one of the few films that I remember sobbing while watching. There are at least two incidents in the film that cut like a knife: one is when the footage of the Columbine shooters in the cafeteria is shown while audio from the 911 calls play, another is the story of the six year old girl who was shot by a six year old boy in Flint, Michigan. Both still bring tears to my eyes, sixteen years later when I view the film.
Moore has widely been derided over the years for his tactics to make his points. For example, the opening scene in which Moore receives a rifle for setting up a bank account is cut in a way that makes it seem like it was a seamless transaction. From what I have read, this actually took place over a few days. I found myself taking a little bit of an issue with how Charlton Heston was interviewed, but that is just because Heston seemed so frail and incapable of thinking clearly during the interview that it seemed exploitative to me. For myself, despite a few minor apprehensions with some of the film, I think that the film holds up rather well. It was Moore at his most passionate and I found myself agreeing with his questions more than some of his other work. Some of his findings surprised even a Moore himself such as the fact that Canada has as many guns per capita, watches as many violent films, and plays as many violent games as their Southern neighbors. This fact changes the question to: why us?
This film went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary and was the top grossing documentary of all time until his next release Fahrenheit 9/11. I feel like this film is much lighter on tricks and speculation than that documentary and also holds up better overall. Unfortunately, Columbine was just the beginning of a national epidemic of mass shootings that have occurred since. I remember that at the time it seemed almost unthinkable that these types of tragedies would occur with the regularity that they do today.
Columbine robbed my generation of its innocence and changed the American landscape forever. Regardless of what you think of Moore or his tactics, I applaud the Criterion Collection for releasing this film and exposing the next generation to the horror we felt sixteen years ago at what was happening to our country. We can only hope that the generations moving forward can learn from the mistakes that were made and stop the cycle of violence that has only amplified since 1999.
Video: How’s it look?
Bowling for Columbine arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer.
From the liner notes:
This new high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. The footage in the film was drawn from a variety of formats, including HD, 16 mm, Super 8, Super VHS, Hi8, Digital 8, MiniDV, VHS, three quarter inch tape, Betacam, Digital Betacam, DVD, and Super 16 mm.
As can be expected, video quality varies, jumping from archival footage to interviews to footage of Moore interviewing people. Overall, I think that the film has been preserved to the best of Criterion’s abilities. I am not sure that this film benefits heavily from the Blu-ray treatment, but fans of the film will be pleased and I cannot see any documentary fan disliking the results.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The only track available on this release is an English 2.0 Surround track. From the liner notes:
The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic print master. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.
As can be expected, Criterion have done everything they can to preserve the integrity of the original elements. With a documentary like this one that relies heavily on both archival footage and field recordings, audio quality varies. Criterion have done their due diligence and removed as much hiss as possible. I think that the surround does a good job whenever songs like Take the Skinheads Bowling, Happiness is a Warm Gun, and more play in the film. For a documentary it is more robust at times than you might think.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Michael Moore Makes a Movie – Moore and some of his crew discuss the tactics they used in filming Bowling for Columbine and some of the other highlights of Moore’s career. There are also interviews with some of Moore’s friends and colleagues. This piece is specifically produced for this Criterion release and as you might expect, it is very well thought out and well done. Most interesting was the discussion of how they chose to go to Heston’s house for the finale of the film and how they were able to get K-Mart to stop selling ammunition.
- Film Festival Scrapbook – a small compilation of interviews given during Cannes Festival, Toronto Film Festival, and the Regus London Festival.
- Charlie Rose – an October 8, 2002 Interview between Moore and Charlie Rose. Moore mainly discusses his dissent to the Iraq War.
- Moore Returns to Colorado – Moore returns to Colorado and holds court on issues related to American violence and the Iraq War.
- Oscar Speech – this piece features Moore discussing how his controversial Oscar speech came together and shows the Oscar speech itself.
- The Awful Truth: “Corporate Cops” – a short and admittedly not that great piece from Michael Moore’s BBC show The Awful Truth.
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Bowling for Columbine is easily one of the most divisive releases that Criterion has put out. Just a brief look at the comments for the film will show that many people hate Moore and his films due to their obvious agenda. I personally have always found Bowling for Columbine to be his most impassioned and best work. It is a heartbreaker of a film and even though some of the more comedic moments fall a little flat, the moral compass of the film seems to be in the right place. Criterion have provided solid supplements for the film, including a new feature with interviews from Moore and his associates that helped make the film. I wish that this film didn’t ring true today, but things have only escalated in the time since. The film moved me then and still moves me now. Recommended.