(R) 4 stars Bowling for Columbine, the latest from Roger and Me creator Michael Moore, is one of the best movies of the year. The ramshackle documentary is powerful, disturbing, funny, thought- provoking, moving and infuriating. To get the most from the experience, you will need to remind yourself of one crucial fact.
Michael Moore is full of shit. Just as full of it as some of those he vilifies onscreen. Sure, he"s lovable and cuddly, looking a lot like a worn teddy bear as he shuffles around. He wants to make the world a better place, especially for those who often do without. But while trying to be champion to the downtrodden, Moore shows little regard for disciplined arguments or ethical journalism. He dismisses ideas without giving them a fair examination, plays fast and loose with facts and presents questionable conclusions as if they were gospel. He works the camera like a stripper works a pole, mugging for the lens while editing oh-so-carefully to make his targets look like fools or monsters. And he ambushes subjects with his film crew - an almost always unproductive attention-getting technique employed by tabloid shows and hack local TV reporters. As long as you remember what Moore does wrong, you will be able to appreciate what, intentionally or not, Bowling for Columbine does right. Moore starts his examination of guns and America by visiting Littleton, Colorado, where two teenage Columbine High School youths horrified the nation when they went on a campus shooting-spree. He visits an early morning bowling class (class?) like the one the boys attended at the beginning of their last day on Earth, asking the expected questions from the students. Moore is taken with the fact that the Columbine shootings occurred on the same day as the heaviest United States bombing of the Kosovo war, visiting the coincidence more than once and treating it as if was significant. "I guess I don"t see that connection," says a spokesman for a Lockheed Martin missile plant, as I nodded my head in agreement. Columbine is ever present in the film. One of the most affecting moments is when Moore"s camera edges close to a glib Littleton-area real estate man obviously designated as the doofus du jour. That is, until Moore asks about the shootings and the man breaks into tears, still so traumatized by the horror that he cannot even say the word "Columbine." The bullets used by the shooters were purchased from Kmart and, later in the film, Moore takes two Columbine survivors to Kmart headquarters, showing their mangled torsos during an ambush confrontation. Despite the cheap tactics, the scene is moving - even more so when we see the surprising corporate response. In both instances, Moore"s standard morality plays are derailed when his subjects react like people instead of puppets. The why of Columbine remains elusive, but its impact is clear. The specific questions of the Colorado shootings lead to the meat of the movie. As Moore pokes and prods, a bigger picture begins to form. Many countries are as well armed as America. Many countries have histories as bloody, or bloodier, than ours. But our murder rate is higher, wildly higher, than any other nation. So what"s up with us? Are we that afraid or angry? Are we that crazy? Michael Moore documentaries tend to meander as he raises lots of questions while searching for memorable footage. Bowling for Columbine follows that pattern, but it proves an asset in this instance because it prevents Moore from racing to judgment (he speed-walks instead) while allowing us time to consider the issues and examine how the documentary is assembled. This one punctuates interviews and stories with comically placed archival footage, a propaganda cartoon and a creepy timeline. To the blissful strains of Louis Armstrong"s "What a Wonderful World," we see a timeline from the "50s to the present noting when the U.S. trained various men who would later become enemies, when the U.S. removed democratically elected leaders, and so forth. The list is fascinating and awful, although the conclusion drawn in the explosively worded final fact is questionable, to say the least. Field trips include a disquieting visit with tofu farmer James Nichols, whose brother Terry helped Timothy McVeigh plan the Oklahoma City bombing, and a look at the nightmarish shooting of a 6-year-old Flint, Michigan girl by a 6-year-old boy. A particularly interesting moment comes during an interview with Marilyn Manson, a popular target of conservatives for his freak show look and gallows rock. His patter sounds overly rehearsed, until Moore asks what he would say to Columbine kids if he had the chance. "Nothing," Manson responds, "I"d just listen to what they had to say." The film concludes with Moore using his NRA card to secure an interview with Hollywood icon and long-time NRA spokesman Charlton Heston. Moore starts off fine with small talk about his history as a hunter, then asks why the NRA insisted on appearing in nearby Denver shortly after the Columbine killings and in Flint shortly after the death of the little girl. Fair enough, but then he begins badgering the old man with a series of questions raised during the filming of the documentary. Had Moore said, "I"m at a loss to answer these questions myself, but I"d like to hear your thoughts," a discussion could have ensued. Instead, Moore hammers on and on until Heston finally gets up and walks away. Moore follows him, waving a photo of the 6-year-old girl and pleading with Heston to "Look at her. Just look at her face!" Wow. Such pain, such drama, such self-serving bullshit. What a stunning performance. Don"t worry, Michael, you"re still big, it"s the PICTURES that got small. Bowling for Columbine provides a deeply flawed, but riveting look at our deeply flawed national mindset. Michael Moore has made his case, mixing truth, half-truths, melodrama and manipulative bullshit in a fashion that would make our government leaders proud. God bless America.