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. As was proven after the release
of Moore's debut, Roger & Me, the director uses real
people, places, and circumstances, then stages events (see
Harlan Jacobson's piece in the November/ December 1989 Film
Comment for more details). Reality a fragile commodity
in any "fact-based" motion picture takes
a back seat to what will play well on a movie screen. As
a result, it's best to consider Moore's films as entries
into the ever-growing category of pseudo (or "meta")
documentaries. Or, perhaps even more accurately, view it
as an exercise in self-publicity. James
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine won at Cannes and
has been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary
Bowling fails the first requirement of a documentary: some
foundation in the truth. In his earlier works, Moore shifted
dates and sequences for the sake of drama, but at least
the events depicted did occur. Most of the time. Bowling
breaks that last link with factual reality. It makes its
points by deceiving and by misleading the viewer. Statements
are made which are false. The viewer is invited to draw
inferences which the producer must have known were wrong.
Dates are transposed and video carefully edited to create
whatever effect is desired. Indeed, even speeches shown
on screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled
in the speaker's voice, but which he never uttered.
These occur with such frequency and seriousness as to rule
out unintentional error. Any polite description would be
inadequate, so let me be blunt. 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, or it may be moving. But it is not a documentary.
One need only consult Rule 11 of the rules for the Academy
Award: a documentary must be non-fictional, and even re-enactments
(much less doctoring of speech) must stress fact and not
Serious charges require serious evidence. The point is not
that Bowling is unfair, or that its conclusions are 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. Those
are strong charges. 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 interviews a PR fellow,
shows missiles being built, and then asks whether knowledge
that weapons of mass destruction were being built nearby
might have motivated the Columbine shooters in committing
their own mass slaying. After all, if their father worked
on the missiles, "What's the difference between that
mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine
High School?" Moore intones that the missiles with
their "Pentagon payloads" are trucked through
the town "in the middle of the night while the children
Soon after Bowling was released someone checked out the
claim, 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:
"Well, first of all, the Lockheed PR people would disagree
with your use of the term, "missile." They now
call their Titan and Atlas missiles on which nuclear warheads
were once (and still are but in less numbers) attached,
"rockets." That's because the 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) Yes, some Titans and Atlases (54 of them) were used
as ICBM launchers -- they were deactivated 25 years ago,
long before the Columbine killers were born;
(2) the fact 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... it's hard
to envision a killer making a moral equation between mass
murder and a recon satellite, right?
(3) In fact, one of that plant's major projects was the
ultimate in beating swords into plowshares: the Denver plant
was in charge of taking the Titan missiles which originally
had carried nuclear warheads, and converting them to launch
satellites and space exploration units instead.
C'mon Mike, You got caught. As we will see below, the event
is all too illustrative of Moore's approach. In producing
a supposed "documentary," Moore simply changes
facts when they don't suit his theme. The viewer cannot
count on what he sees, or is told, having any relation to
facts. Whenever Moore desires, facts will be manufactured
in the editing booth.
2. NRA and the Reaction To Tragedy. The dominant theme in
Bowling (and certainly the theme that has attracted most
reviewers) is that NRA is callous toward slayings. The theme
begins early in the film, and forms its ending, as Moore
confronts Heston, asserting that he keeps going to the scene
of tragedies to hold defiant rallies.
In order to make this theme fit the facts, however, Bowling
repeatedly distorts the evidence. Bowling portrays this
with the following sequence:
Weeping children outside Columbine, explaining how near
they had come to death and how their friends had just been
murdered before their eyes;
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'" to a
cheering NRA crowd.
Cut to billboard advertising the meeting, while Moore in
voiceover 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 West, 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 rally 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." [italics added]. Moore
successfully causes viewers to reach this conclusion. It
is in fact false.
Fact: The Denver event was
not a demonstration relating to Columbine, but an annual meeting,
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. Bowling leads off with this speech, and then
splices in footage which was taken in Denver and refers to
Denver, to create the impression that the entire clip was
taken at the Denver event.
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 quite 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.
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, to create a speech
that was never given. 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 to a meeting
in North Carolina.
Moore then has an interlude -- a visual of a billboard and
his narration. The interlude is vital. He can't cut 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. Or why the background
draperies went from maroon to blue. Moore has to separate
the two segments of this supposed speech to keep the viewer
Moore then goes to show Heston speaking in Denver. His second
edit (covered by splicing in a pan shot of the crowd at the
meeting, while Heston's voice continues) 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 has to take that out -- it would blow his entire theme.
Moore then cuts to Heston noting that Denver's mayor asked
NRA not to come, and shows Heston replying "I said to
the Mayor: Don't come here? We're already here!" as if
Actually, Moore put an edit right in the middle of the first
sentence! Heston was actually saying (with reference Heston's
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."
It thus becomes an arrogant "I said to the Mayor: as
American's we're free to travel wherever we want in our broad
land." He hides the deletion by cutting to footage of
protestors and a still photo of the Mayor as Heston says "I
said to the mayor," cutting back to Heston's face at
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.
As Heston speaks, the video switches momentarily to a pan
of the crowd, then back to Heston; the pan shot covers the
What Heston actually is saying in "We're already here"
was not the implied defiance, but rather this:
"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
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."
Don't take my word for it. Click
here for CNS's full transcript of the speech, and here
for the comparison.. Bowling continues its theme by juxtaposing
another Heston speech with a school shooting at Mt. Morris,
MI, just north of Flint, making the claim that right after
the shooting, NRA came to the locale to stage a defiant rally.
In Moore's words, "Just as he did after the Columbine
shooting, Charlton Heston showed up in Flint, to have a big
Fact: Heston's speech was
given at a "get out the vote" rally in Flint, which
rally was held when elections rolled around some eight months
after the shooting.
Fact: Moore should remember. On the same day, Moore
himself was hosting a similar rally in Flint, for the
Bowling's thrust here is to convince the viewer that Heston
intentionally holds defiant protests in response to a firearms
tragedy. Judging from reviews, Bowling creates exactly that
impression. Here are some samples of reviewer's writings:
"Then, he [Heston] 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."
here for original; italics supplied] Another
reviewer even came off with the impression that 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."
Bowling persuaded these reviewers by deceiving them. There
was no rally shortly after the tragedy, nor 48 hours after
it. When Heston said he did not know of the shooting (which
had happened eight months before his appearance, over a thousand
miles from his home) he was undoubtedly telling the truth.
The lie here is not that of Heston, but of Moore.
The sad part is that the lie has proven so successful. Moore's
creative skills, which could be put to a good purpose, are
instead used to convince the viewer that a truthful man is
a liar and that things which did not occur, did.
That may win an award at Cannes. It may make some serious
money. But it is a disgrace to the documentary creator's art.
3. Animated sequence equating NRA with KKK. In an animated
history send-up, 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 an NRA character helping to light a burning cross.
Fact: The Klan wasn't founded
in 1871, but in 1866,
and quickly became a terrorist organization. One might claim
that it technically became an "illegal" terrorist
organization 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 suspend
habeas corpus and 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 in South Carolina,
sending troops into that and other states; 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 Louisiana for failure to oppose Klan terror.
Fact: The affinity of NRA for enemies of the Klan is hardly
surprising. The NRA was founded in New York by two former
Union officers, its first president was an Army of the Potomac
commander, and eight of its first ten presidents were Union
Fact: During the 1950s and 1960s, groups of blacks organized
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 as a sympathetic youngster
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
Fact: The little boy was the class bully, already suspended
from school for stabbing another kid with a pencil. Since
the incident, he has stabbed another child with a knife. (Sources
for all data are given at the end of this section).
Fact: The uncle's house was
the neighborhood crack-house. The uncle (together with the
shooter's father, then serving a prison term for theft and
cocaine possession, and his aunt and maternal grandmother)
earned their living off drug dealing. The gun was stolen by
one of the uncle's customers and purchased in exchange for
Bowling further depicts the shooter's mother as a victim of
welfare reform, which forced her to work two jobs at low pay,
to be evicted from her house, and to place the shooter in
his uncle's house. "In order to get food stamps and health
care for her children, Tamarla had to work as part of the
State of Michigan's welfare-to-work program." "Although
Tamarla worked up to 70 hours per week at the two jobs in
the mall, she did not earn enough to pay her rent."
Fact: The shooter's mother
had been promoted, and was making $7.85/hour, or about $1250
per month from that job, and an unknown amount from the other,
plus food stamps and health benefits.
Fact: The rent for the house from which they
were evicted was $300 a month.
Fact: Under the Michigan welfare reform, the
family qualified for free child care and rent subsidies.
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
assistance, given through UN and nongovernmental organizations,
to relieve famine in Afghanistan.
6. Canadian Comparisons. Bowling compares the US to Canada,
depicting the latter as an Eden of nonviolence and low homicide
rates (despite having a plentiful supply of firearms). Only
a cynic would suggest this might be linked to the film's Canadian
Fact: Canada is hardly comparable
to the far more urbanized United States. Violence rates correlate
strongly to population density. Canada
has about 3.3 persons per square kilometer, the U.S. about
29.1. Canada has only four cities with population over
Fact: In 2001 (the most recent
year for which FBI data are available State by State) the
nine American states with land borders contiguous to Canada
had an average homicide rate of 2.2 per 100,000 persons, far
less than the rest of the US and not much above Canada's 1.8
rate. North Dakota, with a population density almost identical
to that of Canada (3.5/sq. km.), had a homicide rate of 1.1,
lower than that of Canada. Its Canadian neighbor, Manitoba,
had a rate of 2.96. Quebec (1.89 rate) borders on Vermont
(1.1) New York (5.0) and New Hampshire (1.4). Canadian
Fact: New York is of course a special case; most of its homicides
occur in the urbanized southeast part of the State. If we
look at the four New York counties which border on Canada
(Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence and Jefferson), we find that
in 2001 three counties had no homicides at all, and Jefferson
County had one. Two of the counties also reported not a single
theft that year.
Fact: If Bowling wanted to find areas where doors can be left
unlocked, it did not need to go to Canada. Two of those four
NY counties also reported not a single theft. 85% of U.S.
counties reported no
(as in zero) youth homicides in 1997; in any given year,
about a third of them will report no homicides at all. In
large expanses of the US, generally characterized by low population
density, homicide is almost unknown.
If we want to be more specific and compare urban areas near
the border, rather than states and provinces:
Canadian city homicide rates: Toronto 1; Montreal 3; Winnipeg
3; Windsor 4 (source)
US city homicide rates: Madison WI 1.4; Minneapolis 2.6; Bismarck
ND 0 (not a typo, zero); Boise 2; Duluth 2 Portland ME 1.2
(source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports 2001)
7. Miscellaneous. Even the Canadian government is getting
into the act. In one scene, 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 enters the store and 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 either
or illegal: Canadian law requires all ammunition buyers
to present proper identification. (The law, in effect since
1998, requires non-Canadians to present picture ID and a gun
While we're at it: Bowling shows footage of a B-52 on display
at the Air Force Academy, while Moore solemnly pronounces
that the plaque under it "proudly proclaims that the
plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve of 1972."
Strangely, Moore does not show the plaque.
Actually, the plaque
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, granted. But it illustrates that the
viewer can't even trust Bowling to honestly read the inscription
on a plaque.
8. 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 peace and safety,
Moore asks why. He proclaim 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!" (As I note above, he even
goes so far as to exaggerate the ease with which you can buy
In the end he concludes that Canada isn't peaceful because
it lacks guns and gun nuts, and attributes the different to
the fact that the Canadian mass media isn't into constant
hyping of fear and loathing, and the American media is.
So Bowling is actually not against guns, gun ownership, or
even gun nuts. Outlaw television, not guns! Bowling is against,
and as I point out, fraudulently against, Charlton Heston,
and against the NRA. This is a bit anomalous, since Moore
ultimately concludes that they are telling the truth, but
Bowling's thrust here is thus a bit peculiar. Its total contribution
on the gun issue is not an argument about guns, but a personal
-- indeed a personal, vicious, and falsified -- attack on
Heston and the NRA as a group. That's about it. Which may
explain why the Brady Campaign/Million Moms issued a press
release congratulating Moore on his Oscar nomination... without
saying anything specific about his gun-related matters, instead
referring repeatedly to NRA and Heston. Press
Moore's own assessment of
Bowling is to the point: "It's funny, poignant and interesting,
your perfect Saturday night out." That might of course
be said of good comedic fiction. For a documentary, though,
one expects more. For example, truth.
The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or lacking in objectivity.
One might hope that a documentary would be fair and objective,
but nothing rules out a rousing polemic now and then.
The point is far more fundamental: Bowling for Columbine is
dishonest. It is fraudulent. It fixes upon a theme, and advances
it, whenever necessary, by deception. It even uses the audio/video
editor to assemble a Heston speech that Heston did not give,
and to turn sympathetic phrases into arrogant ones. You can't
even trust the narrator to read you a plaque or show you a
speech, for Pete's sake.
The bottom line: can a film be called a documentary when the
viewer cannot trust an iota of it, not only the narration,
but the video? I suppose film critics could debate that one
for a long time, and some might prefer entertainment and effect
to fact and truth. But the Academy Award rules here are specific.
Rule 11 lays out "Special Rules for the Documentary Award."
And it begins with the definition: "A documentary film
is defined as a non-fiction motion picture . . . ." It
goes on to say that a documentary doesn't always have to show
the "actual occurrence": it can employ re-enactment,
etc., "as long as the emphasis is on factual content
and not on fiction."
So when awards night rolls around, we will see whether the
Academy follows its own core rule, or decides to ignore it
so long as the film is one attacking one Charlton Heston,
and the NRA.
David T. Hardy [who has for the last year been working on
his own, honest, second
David T. Hardy
A few additions:
Street Journal weights in on criticism of Bowling.
A list of some criticisms not
given on this page, and reasons why.
emails critical of this page.