Moore takes aim at violence in American society in his latest documentary

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is the anti-movie star. Heavyset, Moore doesn’t look like he owns a comb, and he certainly does not dress to impress, preferring grubby t-shirts and shorts. Maintaining an appealing physical appearance is of no concern to Moore; he has much bigger issues to tackle.

In his latest film, “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore explores a number of dicey subjects that revolve around the problem of violence in America.

Gun control, the Columbine high school massacre, the NRA, the Oklahoma City bombing; none of these are lighthearted subjects, but Moore still finds ways to inject a large amount of humor into “Bowling.”

The film starts out with Moore opening an account in a small town in Michigan. The bank is running a promotion where if you open a checking account, you get a free gun. This sounds like the stuff of fiction, but Moore is adept at finding major anachronisms in American life. As both the director and star, much of “Bowling for Columbine” consists of Moore wondering around, microphone in hand, looking for answers. The film jumps around from rural Michigan to the streets of Los Angeles, even up north to Canada for a particularly funny sequence. As the title would imply, a large portion of the film deals with the Columbine High School tragedy that took place in Littleton, Colorado in April of 1999.

Moore uses much of the footage caught by Columbine High’s security cameras, and watching the massacre unfold on the big screen is an eerie and unsettling experience. In one of the film’s most interesting juxtapositions, he cuts from the security camera footage to an NRA rally led by the venerable Charlton Heston. The most shocking thing about the rally is that it was held only 10 days after the shooting spree in nearby Denver. Heston is instantly established as the villain of the piece, and Moore deftly weaves him in and out of the film during its two hour run time.

While Moore certainly spends a lot of time probing the Columbine incident and the issue of gun control, the main question at the heart of “Bowling for Columbine” is why violence so prevalent in America. He serves up a number of compelling answers, many of which involve our mass media and its obsession with sensationalizing every story and event. This may be the cleverest trick that Moore pulls off in “Bowling for Columbine;” his low-key documentary approach and unkempt style is the exact opposite of sensationalism, and the end result is a film that is more compelling than anything to come out of Hollywood in the last year.

There is a scene early in the film in which Moore interviews members of the Michigan Militia and asks them why they feel the need to be part of such an organization. While the Michigan Militia might be an easy target to generate laughs, Moore is never condescending towards them. Moore, in addition to being from a small town in Michigan, also reveals that he has been a card-carrying member of the NRA since his teens. So while the Michigan Militia would seem to invite harsh criticism and condescension, Moore reserves that for other interviewees. In one of the film’s less satisfying sections, he tries to chase down Dick Clark in Los Angeles, but is unsuccessful in getting any comment or interview.

Moore is incredibly ambitious and he has a lot to say on a wide number of topics; he touches on everything from the welfare system to the American bombing of Kosovo to September 11. While he is generally skilled at linking these different ideas and events, it causes the film to feel slightly episodic at times. At just over two hours, it occasionally seems like Moore bit off slightly more than he could chew, but there is enough good material here that it is still a satisfying film, even if a few sections tend to drag. By far the most memorable sequence of the film is Moore’s interview with Charlton Heston at the end. One has to wonder what Heston was thinking when he granted Moore an interview, and Moore does not hold back. Ultimately, it feels like an ambush, as Heston comes off as a somewhat incoherent old man, while Moore appears overly aggressive and insensitive. The attack seems especially insensitive because it is fairly well-known that Heston suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. As tough on Heston as Moore is, the end still resonates as an appropriate climax to the film, the showdown between intrepid hero and gun-crazy villain.

Whether or not you agree with Moore’s approach or his politics, “Bowling for Columbine” is a film that is worth seeing. It asks some serious questions about American life, but never feels preachy and is rarely lacking in good humor or entertainment. So far “Bowling for Columbine” is the highest grossing documentary of all time; the previous record holder was Moore’s 1989 film, “Roger & Me.” For fans of “Bowling for Columbine,” “Roger & Me” is certainly worth renting at the video store.