The weird title comes from the fact that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two teens responsible for the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, went bowling early in the morning before arriving at the school.
The weird -- and terrific -- film that sprung from that and many other gun-related events that have taken place in our gun-loving country comes from Michael Moore, part writer-director, part satirist, part troublemaker for good causes.
Anyone not familiar with what Moore has chronicled before -- his interview with a woman selling rabbits "for pets or meat" in Roger and Me is brilliant -- need not worry about not understanding what's going to happen here. One of Columbine's early sequences involves Moore -- equally at ease in front of and behind the camera -- checking out the rules for obtaining a free gun by opening a bank account in a middle-America town. The bit is both funny and shocking -- funny because of the absurdity of it all, shocking because it's true.
And it's a great introduction for what's to come. Moore combines his own often scathing interview work with newsreel footage and a backdrop of all kinds of pop culture references. He sits and talks with James Nichols, brother of Terry, one of the men responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. He goes on a campaign to find out why National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston constantly shows up at pro-gun rallies in cities where gun atrocities have been committed. He corners K-Mart executives, demanding to know why they sell ammunition in their stores.
Moore, big and burly and usually disheveled, sits with or walks with his interview subjects, and just goes on and on, tossing off tough questions. The expression on his face never changes, but his voice sometimes rises in incredulity when he hears the answers to them.
He's managed to get his hands on the actual footage taken by surveillance cameras at Columbine High during the shootings -- and they're not pretty to watch. But he also tosses in a Chris Rock routine in which he's spouting off about very special bullets that cost $5,000, and lets the soundtrack rip with Camper Van Beethoven doing Take the Skinheads Bowling.
Moore appears to be unafraid to speak his mind to anyone about anything. At one point he's chatting amicably with some hardcore members of the Michigan Militia while they're taking some target practice. At another, he's trying desperately to get an interview with Dick Clark -- yes, that Dick Clark, but the reason won't be revealed here -- and, let's put it this way, Clark has been shown in a much better light before.
While the film is quite funny in a dark, satiric way, Moore has structured it in a manner that will regularly catch viewers off guard, such as when the screen is suddenly and grimly filled with images of people being shot or committing suicide with guns.
As a political statement, there's nothing to guess at here. Moore, a card-carrying member of the NRA, is out to show everything that's wrong with the group, even though it was initially formed for good reasons. And he's not the least bit afraid of doing whatever it takes to make his point. So he'll show a quietly ranting Senator Joe Lieberman calling Marilyn Manson "the sickest group ever promoted by a music company," then track down the erudite Manson and have him talk about what politicians and the media have tried to do to him.
And so the humor regularly dissolves into a mood that's somber and sobering, only to brighten back up again. It's Moore's strange talent that allows incredibly serious stuff to be approached in a kind of whimsical manner.
Before long it all gets back to the business of Heston, and of Moore's continuing efforts to get an interview with him. Without giving too much away, he does get the interview, and even though Moore doesn't come up with exactly what he set out to put on film, there's no doubt that he's tickled about what he did get.
Bowling for Columbine was awarded a special 55th Anniversary Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, most likely because jury members knew that if they couldn't give it a normal award, they just had to give it something. It's powerful in subject manner, outrageous in execution. It will make you laugh, even if you do so nervously. The most significant thing about the film, however, is that when you've stopped laughing, you're going to start thinking. And you'll be thinking about it for a long time.