As necessary as it is to have someone like Michael Moore mouthing off about neglected issues and making corporations sweat, it's hard to ignore the fact that the filmmaker also comes across, in film after film, as a self-aggrandizing jerk.
As the unshaven, lumbering star of his incendiary latest film Bowling for Columbine, Moore is both a needed advocate for an America in need of a profound wake-up call and a grandstander who uses the people he purports to care so much about as props in his propaganda puppet theater.
Bowling for Columbine weaves an ornate web of insight and half-truth, lefty conspiracy and justified finger-pointing, sensationalism and sentiment as it tells the story of America's out-of-control gun culture which saw one of their ugliest outcomes in the 1999 mass murders at Colorado's Columbine High School.
Moore interviews peaceable Canadians to see what makes them different from their homicidal neighbors down South, spends some time in the company of scary Oklahoma bombing collaborator Terry Nichols' brother John Nichols and chats with the equally icky members of the Michigan Militia in a pointedly depressing trek across America.
Moore trods a narrow path in Bowling that has him turning to dubious sources for confirmation of his views. Getting into philosophical discussions with Marilyn Manson -- looking like the milky-eyed love child of Alice Cooper and a scabious cat -- in his dressing room, or "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, Moore allows both men to wriggle out of any role in a media-dominated culture of fear and violence. Both instead point their fingers at the lockstep parental law that continues to perturb their still adolescent imaginations, laughing all the way to the bank.
Far more affecting for their spontaneous and genuine response to violence are the ordinary people Moore interviews, like the home security salesman who breaks down at the mere mention of Columbine or the sheriffs and detectives who exhibit a sad, heavy sense of despair.
Though Moore's own agitprop rage against the machine is pure punk, a little sloppy, at times offensive, but filled with justified rage, his tactics are more than a little crass and heavy-handed. Typical is a succession of images of American-sponsored genocide in Vietnam, Pinochet's Chile, Iran, Afghanistan, and a gratuitous pileup of corpses, set to Louis Armstrong's velvety "What A Wonderful World." Moving with lightning speed from comedy to horror, Moore then goes for the tear ducts in nightmarish surveillance camera images of the Columbine murders as they occurred. Like most of the film, that sudden sobriety set to somber music seems calculated to show the requisite reverence for the victims before Moore returns yet again to his callous, jesting sport.
And Moore seems just as willing to use the living in his politicized vaudeville as the dead.
Though the end may, for Moore, justify the means, the way he prods two still-shaken teenage victims of the Columbine shootings into staging one of his patented corporate headquarters-assaults seems especially insensitive. Storming Kmart headquarters along with the kids -- one paralyzed and wheelchair bound -- to "return" the bullets that Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold purchased at the store, the moment is gut-twistingly awful as we watch these kids become fodder in Moore's political theater.
But no matter how led by the nose-ring Bowling for Columbine can make one feel, it's hard to refute the fact that Moore has penetrated to the core of the American Way in his film. Behind the fatuous baiting of lunatic Michigan militiamen and brain dead violence-addicted teens, Moore makes a profound, troubling point about an ingrained American hair-trigger temper and tendency toward intolerance on both the Left and Right.
And while Moore can offer a woundingly accurate view of American hysteria, that righteousness can't erase the sickening effect of his film. Bowling is as much about a country out of control with rage, and a director who lets his own ego and love of comedy craft often painful, sad things into yet another irony-laden, high-style media assault.