ANDY IHNATKO PICKS ON OSCAR 2003


It looks like a documentary and
quacks like a documentary...
but is it really just Michael
Moore in a duck suit?

 

Let me tell you about an experience I had with one of my all-time favorite movies: "Fargo."

When it came out, I went nuts for it. I thought Chief of Police Marge Gunderson was right up there with Columbo, Nick Charles, and Batman: a skilled detective with a unique approach to crimesolving that could easily spawn a dozen stories. I loved the cinematography and the way it made Minnesota and North Dakota look like the most exotic and interesting places on earth. I loved the accents, I loved the utter incompetence of Jerry Lundegaard's criminal scheme, and after I saw it the third time I had an urge for buffet-style dining that required me to drive nearly an hour away to Rhode Island and the only such restaurant that I could find.

Then I learned that the movie's opening title card, which claims that "Fargo" was based on a true story, was a lie.

Did it ruin "Fargo" for me? Well, no. It was still everything it always was. But man alive; the Coen Brothers had lied to me. Lied to me for no real purpose or benefit. Just lied for the sake of lying. It left a bad taste in my mouth. But in the end, honestly, how mad could I be? After all, it was just a movie, just a story. And it was just one little lie. Harmless.

It's not like the Coen Brothers were asking me to treat "Fargo" seriously. It's not like they were using deception and untruths in an attempt to influence my opinions and my view of the world. "Fargo" was sold to me as fiction and if I believed anything in it, well, that was my fault. It's all about product-packaging.

 

"Bowling For Columbine" sold as a documentary. Is it? Not in a conventional sense, no. It's brilliant filmmaking and in many ways it's a very important film. But shouldn't we call it a Filmed Essay instead of a Documentary?

"Documentary" implies that the filmmaker went out there filming real events and interviews, took his footage home, and then built up a story through editing. That's not what happened in "Bowling For Columbine." He wrote a powerful essay about handgun violence and why Americans seem to be so keen on it, and then he illustrated it with filmed footage. There isn't a sense that he filmed events as they happened. Instead, there's the impression that he was working from a shot list, much like a traditional filmmaker would. But then again, Michael Moore has always worn his politics and his vision of the world as it should be right on his sleeve. If you watch a Michael Moore documentary expecting him to enter into a dry, routine investigation and that he's fully prepared to be surprised and changed by what he learns, you clearly haven't been paying attention.

It's not a problem that Moore has an opinion, a point of view, and an agenda. But it's a major problem if Moore is trying to convert people to this point of view via mistruths and deception. And the more I examine "Bowling For Columbine," the less time I spend thinking "Is there anything inaccurate within this film?" More and more the question becomes "Can we even believe the majority of the facts and events in "Bowling For Columbine"?

I started looking into this shortly after my first screening. I enjoy Moore's work so I sat through the first viewing more or less prepared to believe what I was being told. After seeing "Roger And Me" and "The Big One" I had the same opinion of Moore that most people have of the Warren Commission report: that he gets the basic story straight but there's room for doubt on some of the finer details.

But one of the film's final shots made me curious. "Bowling For Columbine" appeared to have been filmed with a single camera throughout, yet a final scene of Moore and NRA chairman Charlton Heston appeared to keeep cutting between two separate reverse shots. Was the scene shot at two separate times and then cut together so it'd seem like we were watching seamless action?

I saw "Bowling For Columbine" again, paying closer attention. It turns out that I was wrong about that final shot; one cut shows the camera frantically swishing and zooming to switch from Heston back to Moore, and I'm certain that the editor merely compressed time a little to eliminate all that frantic camera work.

But I noticed a lot of other things. Things that just didn't feel right. I pulled out a pen and started making notes, jotting down names and figures. I started investigating when I got home and found myself getting sucked in. Quick Google searches evolved into phone interviews and trips to library archives to sift through old news coverage.

Nothing was checking out.

My research is still preliminary. I've found so many problems with the accuracy of the film that at some point, I just had to throw up my hands and start at the beginning of the film and work my way forward. So let's start with the title of the movie. Moore notes that the two kids who committed the Columbine massacre had attended a bowling class before attacking the school and asks why so many people blamed music, movies and video games for the tragedy. From the same logic, why not blame bowling?

So I phoned the Jefferson County Sherriff's Office, which investigated the tragedy. They believe that Harris and Klebold were not in class that morning, and state as such in their official report. They made that conclusion based on testimony from teachers and students, who didn't see them there. There's also an attendance sheet from that morning which marks them both as absent. They also found the class scoresheets. Apparently, in league-style scoring (which is what the class used) you fill out sheets for every registered bowler. If that bowler isn't present, the sheet is duly filed, but without any recorded scores. Investigators found scoresheets with Harris and Klebold's names on them…but no scores.

One of the segments of the movie that gets the most airplay on TV takes place at the very beginning. There's a bank in Northern Michigan that will give you a free gun if you open an account. Moore is shown walking into the bank and asking to open "the account where you get the free gun." He's led to an office where he fills out a couple of forms, answers a couple of questions, a quick background check is completed (Moore comments about the speed and ease of the process) and presto: he exits the bank, proudly raising his new Weatherby rifle in the air.

So I called the bank, North Country Bank & Trust. The spokesperson who processed Moore's free gun in the film doesn't work there any more, but I spoke to one of the gun program's customer-service reps. It turns out that it's impossible to duplicate Moore's experience.

Here's the procedure for the gun program, as it was explained to me:

1) You walk into the bank and ask for "the account where you get the free gun."

2) You're shown a catalogue of available products. They're famous for their guns, but you can also choose a set of golf clubs, a grandfather clock, or other expensive bric-a-brac. You pick out an item.

3) The gun isn't actually "free"; you're buying a Certificate of Deposit and the bank is paying you all of the interest from the account in advance, in the form of fabulous prizes. The bank employee knows what each item costs and calculates how much money you'll have to desposit and how long you'll have to keep it in there to pay off the gun. For instance, I was told that to get the Mark 5 Stainless Weatherby, I'd have to deposit $5697 and keep it there for three years.

4) You fill out paperwork. Two sets, actually. One is the usual paperwork for opening a CD, the second is information for the required firearms background check.

5) You go home and wait. The bank processes your paperwork, both to make sure that no other bank has ever lost money doing business with you, and to make sure that they can legally sell you a firearm. I asked the rep how long the bank took to approve a customer and get him his gun, but she was uncomfortable with giving me an actual number.

"Well, are we talking hours? Days?" I asked.

"Oh, days, definitely." Later in the conversation, she described it as "Like, two weeks' worth of days."

6) When the bank is satisfied that it's safe to issue you a CD and a gun, they notify you. You have the option of picking up the weapon at a local gun dealer or right at the bank but in either case, the weapon has to be shipped there from a different location. No gun inventory is kept at the bank; the only firearms they have on hand are display models so you can fondle the merchandise before you make a selection.

So there are obviously some major disconnects between the experience Moore presents and the experience a customer would have if they didn't appear with a film crew. Again, this is preliminary stuff: it's possible that the process was indeed just that simple when Moore came to film. But it's also possible that the bank agreed to streamline it for the purposes of filming. Unfortunately, the woman who actually chairs the program (and perhaps can speak more authoritatively) was on vacation when I called, but I've got her return-date circled on the calendar. Stay tuned.

The movie's hardly even begun, and already two major facts and incidents depicted are wrong. These things aren't just "matters of opinion," either; he's making a statement of fact that's contrary to physical evidence and presenting a "reality" that only exists through filmmaking.

I have spoken to some of the people who Moore spoke to on-camera. I have spoken to the Air Force Academy. I have researched the crimes mentioned in the documentary and have amassed primary documents on Columbine. What began as an idle curiosity has turned into an ever-lengthening list of problems and an ever-mounting long-distance bill.

Don't you just hate being lied to?

A more complete discussion of some of the inconsistencies of "Bowling For Columbine" will come when I can speak about them with greater confidence – yes, the Sherriff's Office says that the kids weren't bowling that morning…but do other investigators agree with their research? – but I've already turned up enough hard, primary evidence countering enough of Moore's claims that I'm deeply concerned...and a little angry. If Moore is being deceptive about something as straightforward as the inscription on a plaque at the United States Air Force Academy, or when and how the order for a quarter-trillion-dollar collection of fighter planes was placed, how suspicious should I be of the infinitely subtler arguments he makes about handgun violence in the US as compared to other industrialized nations?

 

For now, I've begun to qualify my recommendation of "Bowling For Columbine."

"It's a great show, and you should definitely see it," I tell people. "Just, you know, don't necessarily believe anything you see and hear." Which, come to think of it, is the same advice I give people regarding reality-TV shows.

In the end, "Bowling for Columbine" is "Joe Millionaire" for socio-political buffs.

 


copyright 2003 Andy Ihnatko. Part of the Oscar coverage on Andy Ihnatko's Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.