An international smash that brought documentaries further into the mainstream, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002) was his fifth feature-length film and follow-up to the BBC-funded TV series The Awful Truth. It's also far removed from the dry documentaries Moore watched in his youth: he describes those old shows as "medicine" during an extra included on Criterion's new Blu-ray, presumably for the bad aftertaste that nonetheless yields positive results.
If such documentaries are indeed Vicks DayQuil, Moore's brand of filmmaking is more like grape-flavored Dimetapp: tastes pretty good on the surface, but not as effective on grown-ups. That's not necessarily a surprise, as sensations like Bowling for Columbine exist more as accessible opinion pieces that get people talking; it bludgeons key points and then jumps to the next subject, long before viewers have a chance to truly digest what they're hearing. The film's "grasping at straws" approach was practically unavoidable, of course: Moore has said that Bowling for Columbine started as one concept and became another during shooting, so it's no surprise that we go from gun violence to media-fueled fear and racism in less than 45 minutes. To be fair, Bowling has an apparent through-line that connects certain targets with confidence, style and clever transitions, but the clear lack of focus becomes more evident every time you watch it.
Here's the real problem: if you consider yourself a reasonable person who values cold, hard facts over knee-jerk emotion, Bowling for Columbine might drive you up the wall. The accuracy of scenes like the "free gun" promotion at Michigan's North County Bank, the South Park clone "Brief History of the United States" (which was not animated or endorsed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, despite its convenient placement during the film), a comparison of international gun deaths by country, the NRA's insensitive rallies directly after school shootings, and the closing
ambush interview of Charlton Heston have all been called into question for suspicious editing, half-truths, and other misleading tactics (the most concise all-in-one summaries can be found here and here, just for starters). Separately, each of these rebuttals might severely deflate Moore's good intentions; together, they make it easy to dismiss Bowling for Columbine outright.
It's a shame, too, because Moore didn't need to resort to all that trickery. Bowling for Columbine is the rare film whose middle is the highlight; specifically, its takedown of mainstream media's fixation on fear-based, sensational news stories. That just might be the root of all evil, or the closest the film gets to hitting a clean bull's-eye: we're treated to a handful of great archived news footage paired with coverage of school shootings not far removed from Network or Nightcrawler. Sadly, the bulk of Bowling for Columbine's message gets lost in the shuffle, and I dare say Moore's tactics have cheapened the genre as a whole. Today's average newsfeed is littered with extreme left and right-wing opinion pieces masquerading as "real news" when, just like in Bowling for Columbine, the truth is hiding somewhere in the middle.
I'd be lying if I didn't enjoy Bowling for Columbine upon its initial release; it was one of the biggest word-of-mouth films that year, and the film's accessible tone was refreshing. Unfortunately, those well-documented rebuttals of Moore's claims have soured my enjoyment of the film and made me skeptical of his output as a whole. Even so, Criterion's Blu-ray isn't all good news either: the mostly low-res source material doesn't place this Blu-ray much higher than MGM's 2003 DVD, and many of those extras have not been carried over. Possibly the least essential Criterion disc this year.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Bowling for Columbine looks about as good as its source material will allow. Advertised as a "new high-definition digital restoration", Moore's film isn't exactly a prime candidate for visual perfection: no less than 13 different video formats are utilized here (including VHS, Super 8, 16mm, Mini DV, Digital 8, Betacam, and DVD clips), with the bulk of footage shot either on the fly under less-than-optimal lighting conditions. That's my long-winded way of saying that Bowling for Columbine looks as uneven as most low-budget documentaries, so anyone expecting some sort of night-and-day improvement over MGM's 2003 DVD won't be getting one. That said, there's an obvious uptick in quality during certain segments (the "History of the United States" animated segment and a few planned interviews) from the resolution boost and better encoding, with more natural color saturation and no signs of digital tinkering along the way. Keep your expectations in check and you won't be disappointed.
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Likewise, the original DTS-HD Master Audio track (2.0 Surround) has its fair share of limitations due to the wide variety of source formats...but there aren't any major problems here and, for the most part, all the dialogue and narration is perfectly understandable. The surrounds are used occasionally -- mostly for music cues and other dramatic effects -- with slight channel separation all around, but for the most part this is an entirely front-loaded experience and there's nothing wrong with that. Optional English subtitles are included during the film, but none of the bonus features.
Criterion's interface is very smooth and easy to navigate with access to a timeline, chapters, and bonus features. The disc is locked for Region A players only; it's packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" keepcase with poster-themed cover artwork and an American flag image on the interior. The included fold-out insert features a new essay ("By Any Means Necessary") written by critic Eric Hynes, plus notes on the A/V restoration and a few promotional photos.
New to this release is "Michael Moore Makes a Movie" (35 minutes), a recent documentary featuring Moore, chief archivist Carl Deal, field producers Jeff Gibbs and Meghan O'Hara, and supervising producer Tia Lessin, who discuss the filmmaking process and some of Moore's other productions including Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and more. It's a well-made piece with some good insight; general topics of discussion include happy accidents on the road, funding the film during a lunch meeting, finding Charlton Heston's house, Michael Moore's personal relationship with guns, the standoff at Kmart corporate headquarters, editing several hundred hours of footage, and two more decades of mass shootings.
Carried over from MGM's 2003 DVD are three mid-length Featurettes ("The Oscar Speech", "Return to Denver", and "Film Festival Scrapbook", 53 minutes total), an eight-minute clip from Moore's The Awful Truth segment "Corporate Cops" (seen briefly during the film), a 25-minute Charlie Rose segment featuring Moore, and the film's Theatrical Trailer.
Sadly, a few bonus features from the MGM disc have not been carried over including an audio commentary with the film's receptionists and interns (which also featured a Moore introduction), a Marilyn Manson music video, a mid-length interview between former press secretary Joe Lockhart and Moore, a photo gallery, and a few educational resources. Some of these supplements made not have been included due to rights issues...but that's a lot of missing content for a Criterion disc, and for that reason this Blu-ray feels like a slight downgrade in the extras department. Hang on to those DVDs!
Bowling for Columbine is an entertaining, disorganized, prophetic, and manipulative film that changed the documentary genre for better and worse. Carefully edited half-truths are presented alongside genuine, impassioned statements about America's long-standing obsession with guns, violence, and the fear heaped upon us by mainstream media outlets. It's the very definition of a mixed bag: both compelling and questionable in equal measure, and worth watching just to remind us of the important issues it tackles in such a messy, accessible manner. Criterion's Blu-ray obviously can't wring much more out of the film's limited source material but it looks and sound good enough, even though the bonus features are overall a half-step down from MGM's 2003 DVD with a lot of missing content. It's obviously recommended for die-hard fans, but I can't readily endorse Bowling for Columbine as a blind buy in good conscience. Rent It first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.