Michael Moore's best movie is also his most misunderstood. He has a well-deserved reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but this is perhaps his least political film. People who haven't seen it (largely because they despise Moore and won't watch anything involving him) think it's a pro-gun control film, and that message is certainly present. But it's certainly not the overarching one.
What Moore set out to do was explore a question that most citizens just assume as a way of life in this country: Why do Americans kill each other with guns far more than anyone else does? What is it about our culture that causes gun violence?
As he points out in the film, if it were simply a matter of the number of guns or having access to them, Canadians would have even more gun deaths than we do. If it were violent video games or movies causing, then lots of other countries would have the same problem. If it were merely "a violent history," then wouldn't nations with a track record of starting wars (yeah, we're lookin' at you, Germany) have bigger problems?
There is simply something about the American character that causes us to solve our problems with firearms. Moore's thesis is that stricter gun laws would help, but more importantly, our attitudes need to change. We simply must learn to solve conflicts non-violently. That applies from the street corner to the Middle East.
Although we think of ourselves as a brave people, Columbine shows us to be a fearful nation, overreacting to every conceivable danger. It shows us Canadians who leave their front doors unlocked. It doesn't make them an ideal society; people still get robbed. It does show that they don't let fear govern their lives, along with their national foreign policy.
Most identify the movie by its final scene, where Moore confronts Charlton Heston, then the head of the National Rifle Association, who refused to cancel an NRA conference in Denver just a week after the Columbine shooting. Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you either saw that segment as an ambush of a harmless old man, or as a "gotcha" moment where the leader of a powerful and damaging organization is confronted with the consequences of his group's actions. You can probably figure out which side I fall on.
To me, though, the film's most telling moment is when Moore interviews the father of one of the Columbine massacre's victims. He asks the man, "What is it about Americans that makes us kill each other with guns?" The father replies, "I don't know, what is it?" Moore answers, "That's what I'm asking you!"
The film doesn't have a definitive answer (nor solution), but at least the questions it asks are fascinating and essential. In fact, I've had teenage students watch the whole thing, not even realize they've just viewed a documentary. Some of them even want to discuss it afterward. Believe me, that's quite a feat, no matter what your politics are.
Nolanometer Final Grade: A-