The Loud American
For pure exhilarating joy, few things in cinema so far this year have thrilled me as much as Michael Moore's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Eschewing the bland, vague platitudes from actors and producers desperate to look committed while not actually taking a stand, Moore treated the Bush administration to a broadside that was passionate, genuine, and darkly funny.
But then, as I said at the time, it would have been stranger if Moore had won and not caused some sort of furore - political grandstanding and black comedy have been his stock-in-trade for a decade now, in films, on TV, and in a series of best-selling books. Moore's attitude and gutsiness have always impressed me but the huge success of some of his work in the UK - especially the Bush-bashing Stupid White Men - has always made me a little nervous. It's clear that Moore loves America, and writes in a spirit more of sorrow than anger - but I suspect many of his readers do not share this concern and instead simply subscribe to lazy anti-American prejudice, and would be rather less enamoured of some of what Moore has written, in a similar vein, about our own sceptred isle1.
Certainly Moore provides Yankophobes with plenty of ammunition, whether he means to or not. A case in point is the film he won the Oscar for, Bowling for Columbine, which I was lucky enough to catch recently. The audience for the screening I attended seemed even more art-housey than usual - young-ish, liberal-ish, diverse in all manner of ways, no-one who would have looked out of place at a Stop the War rally. So it was rather bleakly funny that a film about the problem of gun violence should be preceded by the trailers for Terminator 3 (Arnie goes ape with a chain-gun and rocket launcher) and The Hulk (a similar amount of hardware on display, plus of course the world's most famous living WMD).
Bowling for Columbine is a documentary exploring one issue in a number of different ways - namely, that America and Canada are racially, culturally, economically and historically quite similar. Yet the USA's gun murder rate is literally hundreds of times greater than that of its immediate neighbour. Why should this be? Moore sets out in search of answers, interviewing along the way individuals as diverse as members of the Michigan Militia (whose members include a real-estate negotiator who feels it's his duty to keep a loaded M16 in his house), Trey Parker (co-creator of South Park), Marilyn Manson and the big one himself, Charlton Heston. I was expecting his conclusion to be that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) is arcane and allows too many guns to be out there in private hands. Startlingly, this isn't the approach he takes - going so far as to point out that 70% of Canadian families own guns too.
The documentary's ultimate conclusion is a surprising and thought-provoking one - well, surprising to anyone totally unfamiliar with the Michael Moore canon, as our hero inevitably returns to his usual betes noir: Corporate America, the military-industrial complex, and privately owned media.
Not that this film is overly heavy or didactic. Indeed, in a grim and disturbing sort of way this is one of the funniest black comedies I've seen in many months. Moore seems quite happy to let most of his interviewees make fools of themselves, which they do with a minimum of prompting from him. He meets the brother of one of the men responsible for the Oklahoma bombing, as rabid a libertarian as one could conceive of, whose pro-gun rhetoric ceases when Moore suggests the Second Amendment could be interpreted to include home-owned nuclear weapons. That'd be wrong, he's told, because 'there's wackos out there' - this said, straight-faced, by a man who keeps a loaded handgun under his pillow. An animated history of the USA, cheerfully mismatching its jokey style with detailed accounts of social injustice, is another highlight.
But, as you'd expect, it's not all laughs along the way. There is a scathing indictment of American foreign policy – including a breathtaking montage of horrific footage that concludes with film of the Twin Towers attacks, set to Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' – and a serious exploration of how the USA's trigger-happy foreign policy may relate to the behaviour of some of its more trigger-happy citizenry. And some of the film’s most powerful moments are when it abandons its slightly glib tone in favour of simply presenting facts – footage from the closed-circuit TV cameras within Columbine High School is run together with tapes of emergency calls from the day, to spellbinding effect.
The closing segment of the film is perhaps the least successful, as Moore attempts to act on his conclusions. Here the film seems contrivedly melodramatic and somehow just doesn't ring true – particularly Moore's encounter with Charlton Heston. Quite why Moore is ambushing an obviously frail 78-year-old is unclear, especially since the film is at pains to point out the NRA is not the root cause of the problem (Moore himself is a member). It seems sanctimonious, glibly sentimental and unworthy of what has gone before.
But the end aside, Bowling for Columbine is a coherent, thought-provoking, and impressive documentary, as well as being highly entertaining (in a depressing, 'there's no way I'm ever moving to the States' kind of way). On this evidence, Moore is a better documentarian than he is a writer. His next project promises to tackle the rather inflammatory topic of the long history of financial dealings between the families of George W Bush and Osama bin Laden. I can hardly wait.