Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' - Documentary or Fiction?
04/10/2003 at 7:51:02 PM
-David T. Hardy-
The first misconception to correct about Michael Moore's The Big One is that it is a documentary. It's not. Moore doesn't make those.
The Michael Moore production "Bowling for Columbine" won the Oscar for best documentary. Unfortunately, it is not a documentary, by the Academy's own definition.
The injustice here is not so much to the viewer, as to the independent producers of real documentaries. These struggle in a field which receives but a fraction of the recognition and financing of the "entertainment industry." The award of the documentary Oscar to a $4 million entertainment piece is unjust to the legitimate competitors, and sets a precedent which will encourage others to play loose with the truth.
Bowling makes its points by deceiving and by misleading the viewer. Statements are made which are false. Moore leads the reader to draw inferences which he must have known were wrong. Indeed, even speeches shown on screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled in the speaker's voice, but which he never uttered. Bowling uses deliberate deception as its primary tool of persuasion and effect.
A film which does this may be a commercial success. It may be amusing. But it is not a documentary. One need only consult Rule 12 of the rules for the Academy Award: a documentary is a non-fictional movie.
The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or incorrect. No, the point is that Bowling is deliberately, seriously, and consistently deceptive. A viewer cannot count upon any aspect of it, even when the viewer believes he is seeing video of an event occurring or a person speaking. Let's look at the evidence.
1. Lockheed-Martin and Nuclear Missiles. Bowling for Columbine contains a sequence filmed at the Lockheed-Martin manufacturing facility, near Columbine. Moore asks whether knowledge that weapons of mass destruction were being built nearby might have motivated the Columbine shooters. Moore intones that the missiles with their "Pentagon payloads" are trucked through the town "in the middle of the night while the children are asleep."
After Bowling was released someone checked and found that the Lockheed-Martin plant does not build weapons-type missiles; it makes rockets for launching satellites.
Moore's website has his response:
"he Lockheed rockets now take satellites into outer space. Some of them are weather satellites, some are telecommunications satellites, and some are top secret Pentagon projects (like the ones that are launched as spy satellites and others which are used to direct the launching of the nuclear missiles should the USA ever decide to use them). "
Nice try, Mike.
(1) that some are spy satellites which might be "used to direct the launching" (i.e., because they spot nukes being launched at the United States) is hardly what Moore was suggesting in the movie. Quote:
"So you don't think our kids say to themselves, 'Dad goes off to the factory every day, he builds missiles of mass destruction. What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'"
It's hard to envision a murderer making a moral equation between mass murder and a recon satellite, right?
(2) In fact, one of that plant's major projects was the ultimate in beating swords into plowshares: taking the Titan missiles which originally had carried nuclear warheads, and converting them to launch communications satellites and space exploration units.
2. NRA and the Reaction To Tragedy. A major theme in Bowling (and certainly the theme that has attracted most reviewers) is that NRA is callous toward slayings. In order to make this theme fit the facts, however, Bowling repeatedly distorts the evidence.
A. Columbine Shooting/Denver NRA Meeting. Bowling portrays this with the following sequence:
Weeping children outside Columbine;
Cut to Charlton Heston holding a musket over his head and happily proclaiming "I have only five words for you: 'from my cold, dead, hands'";
Cut to billboard advertising the meeting, while Moore intones "Just ten days after the Columbine killings, despite the pleas of a community in mourning, Charlton Heston came to Denver and held a large pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association;"
Cut to Heston (supposedly) continuing speech... "I have a message from the Mayor, Mr. Wellington Webb, the Mayor of Denver. He sent me this; it says 'don't come here. We don't want you here.' I say to the Mayor this is our country, as Americans we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land. Don't come here? We're already here!"
The portrayal is one of Heston and NRA arrogantly holding a protest in response to the deaths -- or, as one reviewer put it, "it seemed that Charlton Heston and others rushed to Littleton to hold rallies and demonstrations directly after the tragedy." The portrayal is in fact false.
Fact: The Denver event was not a demonstration relating to Columbine, but an annual meeting (see links in next para.), whose place and date had been fixed years in advance.
Fact: At Denver, the NRA canceled all events (normally several days of committee meetings, sporting events, dinners, and rallies) save the annual members' meeting; that could not be cancelled because corporate law required that it be held.
Fact: Heston's "cold dead hands" speech, which leads off Moore's depiction of the Denver meeting, was not given at Denver after Columbine. It was given a year later in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a response to his being given the musket, a collector's piece, at that annual meeting.
Fact: When Bowling continues on to the speech which Heston did give in Denver, it carefully edits it to change its theme.
Moore's fabrication here cannot be described by any polite term. It is a lie, a fraud, and a few other things. Carrying it out required a LOT of editing to mislead the viewer, as I will show below. I transcribed Heston's speech as Moore has it, and compared it to a news agency's transcript, color coding the passages. CLICK HERE for the comparison, with links to the original transcript.
Moore has actually taken audio of seven sentences, from five different parts of the speech, and a section given in a different speech entirely, and spliced them together. Each edit is cleverly covered by inserting a still or video footage for a few seconds.
First, right after the weeping victims, Moore puts on Heston's "I have only five words for you . . . cold dead hands" statement, making it seem directed at them. As noted above, it's actually a thank-you speech given a year later in North Carolina.
Moore then has an interlude -- a visual of a billboard and his narration. This is vital. He can't go directly to Heston's real Denver speech. If he did that, you might ask why Heston in mid-speech changed from a purple tie and lavender shirt to a white shirt and red tie, and the background draperies went from maroon to blue. Moore has to separate the two segments.
Moore then goes to show Heston speaking in Denver. His second edit (covered by splicing in a pan shot of the crowd) deletes Heston's announcement that NRA has in fact cancelled most of its meeting:
"As you know, we've cancelled the festivities, the fellowship we normally enjoy at our annual gatherings. This decision has perplexed a few and inconvenienced thousands. As your president, I apologize for that."
Moore then cuts to Heston noting that Denver's mayor asked NRA not to come, and shows Heston replying "I said to the Mayor: As Americans, we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land. Don't come here? We're already here!" as if in defiance.
Actually, Moore put an edit right in the middle of the first sentence, and another at its end! Heston really said (with reference his own WWII vet status) "I said to the mayor, well, my reply to the mayor is, I volunteered for the war they wanted me to attend when I was 18 years old. Since then, I've run small errands for my country, from Nigeria to Vietnam. I know many of you here in this room could say the same thing."
Moore cuts it after "I said to the Mayor" and attaches a sentence from the end of the next paragraph: "As Americans, we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad land." He hides the deletion by cutting to footage of protestors and a photo of the Mayor before going back and showing Heston.
Moore has Heston then triumphantly announce "Don't come here? We're already here!" Actually, that sentence is clipped from a segment five paragraphs farther on in the speech. Again, Moore uses an editing trick to cover the doctoring, switching to a pan shot of the audience as Heston's (edited) voice continues.
What Heston said there was:
"NRA members are in city hall, Fort Carson, NORAD, the Air Force Academy and the Olympic Training Center. And yes, NRA members are surely among the police and fire and SWAT team heroes who risked their lives to rescue the students at Columbine.
Don't come here? We're already here. This community is our home. Every community in America is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America. The Second Amendment ethic of lawful, responsible firearm ownership spans the broadest cross section of American life imaginable.
So, we have the same right as all other citizens to be here. To help shoulder the grief and share our sorrow and to offer our respectful, reassured voice to the national discourse that has erupted around this tragedy."
B. Mt. Morris shooting/ Flint rally. Bowling continues by juxtaposing another Heston speech with a school shooting of Kayla Rolland at Mt. Morris, MI, just north of Flint. Moore makes the claim that "Just as he did after the Columbine shooting, Charlton Heston showed up in Flint, to have a big pro-gun rally."
Fact: Heston's speech was given at a "get out the vote" rally in Flint, which was held when elections rolled by some eight months after the shooting ( Feb. 29 vs Oct. 17, 2000).
Fact: Bush and Gore were then both in the Flint area, trying to gather votes. Moore himself had been hosting rallies for Green Party candidate Nader in Flint a few weeks before.
Let's examine how Moore creates the impression that one event was right after the other. He does this so smoothly that I didn't spot it. It was picked up by Richard Rockley, who was kind enough to send me an email.
Moore works by depriving you of context and guiding your mind to fill the vacuum -- with completely false ideas. It is brilliantly, if unethically, done,. Let's deconstruct his method.
The entire sequence takes barely 40 seconds. Images are flying by so rapidly that you cannot really think about them, you just form impressions.
Shot of Moore comforting Kayla's school principal after she discusses Kayla's murder. As they turn away, we hear Heston's voice: "From my cold, dead hands."
When Heston becomes visible, he's telling a group that freedom needs you now, more than ever, to come to its defense. Your impression: Heston is responding to something urgent, presumably the controversy caused by her death. And he's speaking about it like a fool.
Moore: "Just as he did after the Columbine shooting, Charlton Heston showed up in Flint, to have a big pro-gun rally."
Moore continues on to say that before he came to Flint, Heston had been interviewed by the Georgetown Hoya about Kayla's death... Why would this be important?
Image of Hoya (a student paper) appears on screen, with highlighting on words of reporter mentioning Kayla Rolland's name, and highlighting on Heston's name (only his name, not his reply) as he answers. Image is on screen just long enough for the viewer to skim the highlighted words and gather that Heston was asked about her and replied. Ah, the relevance.
Okay, you think, he obviously was alerted to the case, and that's why be came.
And, Moore continues, the case was discussed on Heston's "own NRA" webpage... Again, your mind seeks relevance....
Image of a webpage for America's First Freedom (a website for NRA, not for Heston) with text "48 hours after Kayla Rolland was prounced dead" highlighted and zoomed in on. The image is visible so briefly that only highlighted text can be read.
Your impression: Heston did something 48 hours after she died. Why else would "his" webpage note this event, whatever it is? What would Heston's action have been? It must have been to go to Flint and give the speech.
Scene cuts to protestors, including a woman with a Million Moms March t-shirt, who asks how Heston could come here, she's shocked and appalled, "it's like he's rubbing our face in it." (This speaker and the protest may be faked, but let's assume for the moment they're real.).
This caps your impression. She's shocked by Heston coming there, 48 hours after the death. He'd hardly be rubbing faces in it if he came there months or years later, on a purpose unrelated to the death.
The viewer thinks he or she understands ....
One reviewer: Heston "held another NRA rally in Flint, Michigan, just 48 hours after a 6 year old shot and killed a classmate in that same town."
Another:"What was Heston thinking going to into Colorado and Michigan immediately after the massacres of innocent children?"
Let's look at the facts behind the presentation:
Heston's speech, with its sense of urgency, freedom needs you now more than ever before. As noted above, it's actually an election rally, held weeks before the closest election in American history.
Moore: Just as at Columbine, Heston showed up in Flint to have a large pro-gun rally. As noted above, it was an election rally actually held eight months later.
Georgetown Hoya interview, with highlighting on reporter mentioning Kayla and on Heston's name where he responds.
What is not highlighted, and impossible to read except by repeating the scene, is that the reporter asks about Kayla and about the Columbine shooters, and Heston replies only as to the Columbine shooters. There is no indication that he recognized Kayla Rolland's case.
"His NRA webpage" with highlighted reference to "48 hours after Kayla Robinson is pronounced dead." Here's where it gets interesting. Moore zooms in on that phrase so quickly that it blots out the rest of the sentence, and then takes the image off screen before you can read anything else.
The page is long gone, but I finally found a June 2000 usenet posting citing the "48 hours" webpage. Guess what the page really said happened? Not a Heston trip to Flint, but: "48-hours after Kayla Rolland is pronounced dead, Bill Clinton is on The Today Show telling a sympathetic Katie Couric, "Maybe this tragic death will help.""
Yep, Moore had a reason for zooming in on the 48 hours. The zooming starts instantly, and moves sideways to block out the rest of the sentence before even the quickest viewer could read it.
Moore is a genius here. But if this is artistic talent, it's not the type that merits an Oscar.
C. Heston Interview. Having created the desired impression, Moore follows with his Heston interview. Heston's memory of the Flint event is foggy (he says it was a morning event and he "then went on to wherever we were going." In fact the rally was 6 - 7:30 PM and the last event of the tour.). Heston's lack of recall is not surprising; it was one rally in a nine-stop tour of three States in three days.
Moore, who had plenty of time to prepare, continues the impression he has created, asking Heston questions such as: "After that happened you came to Flint to hold a big rally and, you know, I just, did you feel it was being at all insensitive to the fact that this community had just gone through this tragedy?" Moore continues, "you think you'd like to apologize to the people in Flint for coming and doing that at that time?"
Moore knows the real sequence, and knows that Heston does not. Moore takes full advantage.
Moore's purpose here is to convince the viewer that Heston intentionally holds defiant protests in response to a firearms tragedy. Judging from reviews above, Moore succeeds. In fact, when Heston says he did not know about Kayla's shooting when he went to Flint, viewers see Heston as an inept liar:
"Then, he and his ilk held ANOTHER gun-rally shortly after another child/gun tragedy in Flint, MI where a 6-year old child shot and killed a 6-year old classmate (Heston claims in the final interview of the film that he didn't know this had just happened when he appeared)."
Bowling persuaded these viewers by deceiving them. Moore's creative skills, which could be put to a good purpose, are instead used to convince the viewer that things happened which did not and that a truthful man is a liar when he denies them.
3. Animated sequence equating NRA with KKK. In an animated history send-up, with the narrator talking rapidly, Bowling equates the NRA with the Klan, suggesting NRA was founded in 1871, "the same year that the Klan became an illegal terrorist organization." Bowling goes on to depict Klansmen becoming the NRA and an NRA character helping to light a burning cross. This sequence is intended to create the impression either that NRA and the Klan were parallel groups or that when the Klan was outlawed its members formed the NRA. And viewers pick up just that message. "Throughout the film Moore mentions the history of the NRA and ties it closely with the history of white Americans' fear of African-Americans. He points out that the NRA was "coincidentally" founded in the same year that the KKK was founded." Source
Both impressions are not merely false, but directly opposed to the real facts.
Fact: The NRA was founded in 1871 -- by act of the New York Legislature, at request of former Union officers. The Klan was founded in 1866, and quickly became a terrorist organization. One might claim that while it was an organization and a terrorist one, it technically became an "illegal" such with passage of the federal Ku Klux Klan Act and Enforcement Act in 1871. These criminalized interference with civil rights, and empowered the President to use troops to suppress the Klan.
Fact: The Klan Act and Enforcement Act were signed into law by President Ulysess S. Grant. Grant used their provisions vigorously, suspending habeas corpus and deploying troops; under his leadership over 5,000 arrests were made and the Klan was dealt a serious (if all too short-lived) blow.
Fact: Grant's vigor in disrupting the Klan earned him unpopularity among many whites, but Frederick Douglass praised him, and an associate of Douglass wrote that African-Americans "will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services."
Fact: After Grant left the White House, the NRA elected him as its eighth president.
Fact: After Grant's term, the NRA elected General Philip Sheridan, who had removed the governors of Texas and Lousiana for failure to suppress the KKK.
Fact: The affinity of NRA for enemies of the Klan is hardly surprising. The NRA was founded by former Union officers, and eight of its first ten presidents were Union veterans.
Fact: During the 1950s and 1960s, groups of blacks organized as NRA chapters in order to obtain surplus military rifles to fight off Klansmen.
.4. Shooting at Buell Elementary School in Michigan. Bowling depicts the juvenile shooter who killed Kayla Rolland as a sympathetic youngster, from a struggling family, who just found a gun in his uncle's house and took it to school. "No one knew why the little boy wanted to shoot the little girl."
Fact: The little boy was the class bully, already suspended from school for stabbing another kid with a pencil, and had fought with Kayla the day before. Since the incident, he has stabbed another child with a knife.
Fact: The uncle's house was the neighborhood crack-house. The gun was stolen and was purchased by the uncle in exchange for drugs.The shooter's father was already serving a prison term for theft and drug offenses. After the event, the shooter's uncle went to jail. A few weeks later police busted his grandmother and aunt for narcotics sales. After police hauled the family away, the neighbors applauded the officers. These was not the nice but misunderstood family Moore portrays.
Links:1., 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
5. The Taliban and American Aid. After discussing military assistance to various countries, Bowling asserts that the U.S. gave $245 million in aid to the Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, and then shows aircraft hitting the twin towers to illustrate the result.
Fact: The aid in question was humanitarian assistance, given through UN and nongovernmental organizations, to relieve famine in Afghanistan.
6. International Comparisons. To pound home its point, Bowling flashes a dramatic count of gun homicides in various countries: Canada 165, Germany 381, Australia 65, Japan 39, US 11,127. Now that's raw numbers, not rates, but let's go with what Bowling uses.
Verifying the figures was difficult, since Moore does not give a year for them, but I kept trying. A lot of Moore's numbers didn't check out for any period I could find. As a last effort at checking, I did a Google search for each number and the word "gun" or words "gun homicides" Many traced -- only back to webpages repeating Bowling's figures. So far as I can find, Moore is the only one using these numbers.
Germany: Bowling says 381: 1995 figures put homicides at 1,476, about four times what Bowling claims, and gun homicides at 168, about half what it claims: it's either far too high or far too low. (And that is just murder: if you add in accidents and suicides it becomes 12,888 for all, or about 1,207 for firearms.)
Australia: Bowling says 65. This is very close, albeit picking the year to get the data desired. Between 1980-1995, firearm homicides varied from 64-123, although never exactly 65. In 2000, it was 64, which was proudly proclaimed as the lowest number in the country's history. If suicides and accidents are included, the numbers become 516 - 687.
US: Bowling says 11,127. FBI figures put it a lot lower. They report gun homicides were 8,719 in 2001, 8,661 in 2000, 8,480 in 1999. (2001 UCR, p. 23).
Going back 1997 (earliest year listed in the 2001 FBI report), I couldn't find Bowling's U.S. number anywhere.
After an email tip, I finally found a way to compute 11,127. Ignore the FBI, use Nat'l Center for Health Statistics figures. These are based on doctor's death certificates rather than police investigation, and give figures about 2,000 higher than FBI.
Then -- to their gun homicide figures, add the figure for legally-justified homicides: self-defense and police use against criminals. Presto, you have exactly Moore's 11,127. I can see no other way for him to get it.
Since Moore appears to use police figures for the other countries, it's hardly a valid comparison. More to the point, it's misleading: when we talk of a gun homicide problem we hardly have in mind a woman defending against a rapist, or a cop taking out an armed robber.
Canada: Moore's number is correct for 1999, a low point, but he ignores some obvious differences.
Bias. I wanted to talk about fabrication, not about bias, but I've gotten emails asking why I didn't mention that Switzerland requires almost all adult males to have guns, but has a lower homicide rate than Great Britain, or that Japanese-Americans, with the same proximity to guns as other Americans, have homicide rates half that of Japan itself. Okay, they're mentioned, now back to our regularly scheduled program.
7. Miscellaneous. Even the Canadian government is jumping on Moore. Bowling shows Moore casually buying ammunition at an Ontario Walmart. He asks us to "look at what I, a foreign citizen, was able to do at a local Canadian Wal-Mart." He buys several boxes of ammunition without a question being raised. "That's right. I could buy as much ammunition as I wanted, in Canada."
Canadian officials have pointed out that the buy is faked or illegal: Canadian law has since, 1998, required ammunition buyers to present proper identification. Since Jan. 1, 2001, it has required non-Canadians to present a firearms borrowing or importation license, too. (Bowling appears to have been filmed in mid and late 2001).
While we're at it: Bowling shows footage of a B-52 on display at the Air Force Academy, while Moore scornfully intones that the plaque under it "proudly proclaims that the plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve of 1972."
The plaque actually reads that "Flying out of Utapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield in southeast Thailand, the crew of 'Diamond Lil' shot down a MIG northeast of Hanoi during 'Linebacker II' action on Christmas eve 1972." This is pretty mild compared to the rest of Bowling, but the viewer can't even trust Moore to honestly read a monument.
8. Race. Moore does not directly state that Heston is a racist--he is the master of creating the false impression --but reviewers come away saying "Heston looks like an idiot, and a racist one at that" Source. "BTW, one thing the Heston interview did clear up, that man is shockingly racist." Source.
The remarks stem from Heston's answer (after Moore keeps pressing for why the US has more violence than other countries) that it might be due to the US "having a more mixed ethnicity" than other nations. and "We had enough problems with civil rights in the beginning." A viewer who accepts Moore's theme that gun ownership is driven by racial fears might conclude that Heston is blaming blacks and the civil rights movement.
But if you look at some history missing from Bowling, you get exactly the opposite picture. Heston is talking, not about race, but about racism. In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement was fighting for acceptance. Civil rights workers were being murdered. The Kennedy Administration, trying to hold together a Democratic coalition that ranged from liberals to fire-eater segregationists such as George Wallace and Lester Maddox, found the issue too hot to touch, and offered little support.
Heston got involved. He worked with Martin Luther King, and helped King break Hollywood's color barrier (yes, there was one.). He led the actors' component of King's 1963 march in Washington, which set the stage for key civil rights legislation in 1964. Source.
Here's Heston's comments at the 2001 Congress on Racial Equality Martin Luther King dinner (presided over by NRA director, and CORE President, Roy Innes). More on Heston.
Most of the viewers were born long after the events Heston is recalling. To them, the civil rights struggle consists of Martin Luther King speaking, people singing "We Shall Overcome," and everyone coming to their senses. Heston remembers what it was really like.
9. Fear. Bowling probably has a good point when it suggests that the media feeds off fear in a search for the fast buck. Bowling cites some examples: the razor blades in Halloween apples scare, the flesh-eating bacteria scare, etc. The examples are taken straight from Barry Glassner's excellent book on the subject, "The Culture of Fear," and Moore interviews Glassner on-camera for the point.
Then Moore does exactly what he condemns in the media.
Given the prominence of schoolyard killings as a theme in Bowling for Columbine, Moore must have asked Glassner about that subject. Whatever Glassner said is, however, left on the cutting-room floor. That's because Glassner lists schoolyard shootings as one of the mythical fears. He points out that "More than three times as many people are killed by lightning as by violence at schools."
10. Guns (supposedly the point of the film). A point worth making (although not strictly on theme here): Bowling's theme is, rather curiously, not opposed to firearms ownership.
After making out Canada to be a haven of nonviolence, Moore asks why. He proclaims that Canada has "a tremendous amount of gun ownership," somewhat under one gun per household. He visits Canadian shooting ranges, gun stores, and in the end proclaims "Canada is a gun loving, gun toting, gun crazy country!"
Or as he put it elsewhere, "then I learned that Canada has 7 million guns but they don't kill each other like we do. I thought, gosh, that's uncomfortably close to the NRA position: Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
Bowling concludes that Canada isn't peaceful because it lacks guns and gun nuts -- it has lots of those -- but because the Canadian mass media isn't into constant hyping of fear and loathing, and the American media is. (One problem).
Which leaves us to wonder why the Brady Campaign/Million Moms issued a press release. congratulating Moore on his Oscar nomination.
Or does Bowling have a hidden punch line, and in the end the joke is on them?
One possible explanation: did Bowling begin as one movie, and end up as another?
The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or lacking in objectivity. The point is far more fundamental: Bowling for Columbine is dishonest. It is fraudulent. To trash Heston, it even uses the audio/video editor to assemble a Heston speech that Heston did not give, and sequences images and carefully highlighted text to spin the viewer's mind to a wrong conclusion. If there is art in this movie, it is this art -- a dishonest art. Moore does not inform his readers: he plays them like a violin.
David T. Hardy , to include the Second Amendment.