Bowling for Columbine was just the third documentary feature for Moore, after his sleeper hit Roger & Me (1989) and national temperature check while on book tour The Big One (1997), which were interspersed with two television series, the Emmy-winning TV Nation (1994–95) and The Awful Truth (1999–2000).
All these projects featured Moore on camera, in his signature baseball cap, conspicuous glasses, nondescript jacket, jeans, and white sneakers, cozying up to common folk or interrogating persons in power.
The character is based on the real Moore, of course, but the films isolate only those aspects that the topic at hand can utilize, broad strokes in a selective self-portrait.
In Bowling for Columbine, it’s that he grew up a precocious marksman in a gun-loving state (“I couldn’t wait to go outside and shoot up the neighborhood,” he says about getting his first toy gun), and he uses footage of himself with firearms as both an admission entitling him to a critical angle on gun ownership and a sight gag.
It also allows for the free-for-all sequencing that follows, progressing from Moore’s voice-over biographical sketch to his name-dropping of his fellow Michigander Heston, complete with a cut from the rifle-firing thespian to the rifle-firing filmmaker—savagely foreshadowing the film’s final sequence—before alighting on an official’s unintentionally hilarious account of a gun-toting dog, on the way to in-the-field interviews with members of the Michigan Militia and wild-eyed James Nichols, the brother of convicted domestic terrorist Terry Nichols. In both a formal and tonal sense, Moore is establishing a culture in which anything goes, any texture or method belongs.
And we haven’t even gotten to the caustic American historical montages scored to the aforementioned “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” the foulmouthed animated section conflating American racism with gun ownership, or the Roger & Me–like petitioning-the-king scene at Kmart’s corporate offices starring two Columbine survivors.
That vitality may come as a surprise to those who’ve come to know Moore primarily through his ascendancy as a political pundit—his unconventional, attention-grabbing tactics can get in the way of recognition of his achievements.
But while debates around his methodology should and do persist, what is indisputable is Bowling for Columbine’s standing as a cultural landmark.
Playing a one-liner-throwing David ready to take on the next Goliath has helped Moore reach a mainstream audience. That kind of success can foster resentment, especially when so many documentary filmmakers struggle for solvency and distribution.
His follow-up film, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he took on President George W. Moore’s budget on Bowling for Columbine (.9 million) still dwarfs those of 99 percent of documentary films (the rights for the songs alone, which include the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” would eat up the entire budget of most indies).