At 6 a.m. on April 20, 1999, just hours before they killed a dozen classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went bowling. Was there a connection? Is it logical to blame the sport or, for that matter, any single thing for America's spectacularly violent nature? "Bowling for Columbine" doesn't have the answers and really doesn't expect to find them. For documentary writer-director Michael Moore, the asking, as always, is what's important.
Moore made his reputation trying to ask questions of an elusive Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, in his 1989 documentary "Roger & Me," a puckish film that is apparently still the highest-grossing narrative documentary.
In "Bowling for Columbine," his troubling and troublesome look at America's gun culture, Moore (who has gone on to write best-selling books like the current "Stupid White Men") is as much a provocateur as he is a filmmaker. That style has charms, and limitations.
Moore's concern about issues is genuine, and his showboating technique is often entertaining. But he is not the most organized person in the world, and there is a scattershot randomness about this film that is both its essence and a source of frustration.
Like a sociopolitical magpie, Moore can't resist including all kinds of amusing yet haphazard stuff that connects loosely at best with his themes, like a 1950s TV commercial for the Sound-O-Power, a toy gun that sounds real, and a clip of comedian Chris Rock doing a riff on what a different world this would be if bullets were priced at $5,000 each.
Moore also has an unerring radar for eccentricity, for turning up strange individuals like Columbine's bowling team and the man who was No. 2 on a domestic bomb-threat list in Oscoda, Mich., who felt chagrined that he hadn't placed higher. "I wanted to be No. 1," the man confesses. "It's an ego thing."
With its picture of America as a nation of wayward and well-armed wackos, "Bowling for Columbine" was sure to gain a sympathetic ear from Europeans. True to form, it was the first documentary in competition at Cannes in 46 years, where the jury awarded it a special 55th anniversary prize.
Yet despite its lapses and despite being all over the map, "Bowling for Columbine" does confront the intractable issue of violence, and there's not a lot of competition in that arena. Moore's shambling on-screen persona camouflages his fierceness and persistence, his conviction that, as the father of a Columbine victim puts it, there's something wrong in this country when a child can grab a gun and kill.
Moore starts "Bowling" with some riffs on the state he grew up in, Michigan, "a gun lover's paradise." He turns out to be a rarity for a liberal, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn. as well as the recipient of an NRA award as a teenager. And he takes us on a tour of some of Michigan's stranger firearms byways, like a barbershop that sells ammunition and a savings and loan that offers a free rifle ("More Bang for Your Buck") with certain accounts.
Next, the film concentrates, as much as it is able to concentrate, on the shootings at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo. We see chilling footage of the massacre from the school's security camera tapes, talk to "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, once a Littleton resident, and find out that Lockheed Martin, one of the world's largest arms manufacturers, is headquartered in the town.
One of the more absorbing sections involves a search for a reason why Americans perpetrate so much violence, why our gun-related homicides are so astronomical compared with the rest of the world's. USC professor Barry Glassner talks persuasively about our culture of fear and the way money is made from it, and Moore takes a diverting trip to Canada, a country with lots of guns but such a different culture that even city dwellers typically don't lock their doors. (Moore tries some random doors and finds them open.)
"Bowling for Columbine's" final and most focused section involves a shooting in Moore's hometown of Flint that especially galvanized him: the school killing of a 6-year-old first-grader by another 6-year-old. Moore looks into the "welfare to work" program that kept the shooter's mother separated from her son, challenges Kmart officials about their chain's sale of ammunition and, in the film's climax, confronts Charlton Heston about why he came to Flint for a pro-gun rally just after the shooting.
What does all this add up to? Perhaps nothing, certainly nothing conclusive. But although his approach is scattershot, so to speak, Moore hits some targets. Anything that coaxes us into thinking about why we are the way we are, even as imperfectly as "Bowling for Columbine" does, is an energizing change of pace.
MPAA rating: R for some violent images and language. Times guideline: chilling Columbine murder footage.
'Bowling for Columbine'
An Alliance Atlantis Communications, Inc. production, released by United Artists. Director Michael Moore. Producers Michael Moore, Kathleen Glynn, Michael Donovan, Charles Bishop, Jim Czarnecki. Executive producer Wolfram Tichy. Screenplay Michael Moore. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
In limited release.