BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. Have gun, will travel.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Michael Moore's new film seems poised to follow in the footsteps of his past work--some hilarious moments during which liberals can congratulate themselves for recognizing glaring hypocrisies and little else. In Bowling for Columbine, he spends some time with members of the Michigan militia (who are so eager to seem rational that they come off like nutbars closeup) and segments such as these bear the hallmarks of the classic Moore interview technique: give 'em some rope, then edit to make sure they hang themselves with it. It's either ironic or poetic that Michael Moore has made a film about guns, considering what a nice living he makes shooting fish in a barrel.

Admittedly, there is a deeply satisfying irony in watching a representative of the world's largest weapons manufacturer standing in front of a football field-sized missile tube and claiming not to see any distinction between the arms industry and gun use in America. But during other scenes, such as when a Littleton landlord starts unexpectedly crying about Columbine, the filmmaker's presence (on-camera, no less) feels inappropriate and self-serving.

When the film turns to the events of Columbine, however, it enters a state of grace that lands with devastating severity. Moore shows security cam footage of the assault, narrated only by 911 tapes, then cuts to one week later, at the NRA rally in Littleton, where Charlton "anything for applause" Heston is revving up the pro-gun lobby--which is intercut with the wrenching anti-gun rally where victims' parents gather in tearful outrage. It's a fantastic sequence, unfortunately followed by several others that fail to live up to its wallop. Some are diverting (interviews with Matt Stone and Marilyn Manson), some are shrewd (a country-by-country list of gun murder statistics, culminating in a great trip to Canada), and some are just crass (a précis of 20th Century atrocities accompanied by "What a Wonderful World"). What they mostly are, however, is rambling.

Bowling for Columbine is a film about a huge subject, desperately grasping for a thesis. For a while, Moore seems onto something--a culture of fear endemic to our country--but in the end, he shortchanges the psychological complexity in favor of cheap shots: ambushing Heston at home, cornering a K-Mart exec, and so forth. It's too bad, because the movie, and the director, have so much momentum; Moore, for all his pomposity, is the only man alive who could get a film like this made and seen. He clearly cares, and considering his influence with lockstep liberals, he had the opportunity to say something great here. He almost does, but ultimately doesn't. Can't, maybe. Because he isn't really a social critic, he's a demagogue. His art is being a self-righteous smartass--which makes it all the more frustrating when you agree with him.