Yes, it's OK to like Michael Moore again: "Bowling for Columbine" is his finest, most impassioned piece of political docu-theater since "Roger & Me." Perhaps it's the severity of the subject matter (gun violence in America), but this vital film has all of the street-smart urgency of Moore's best work and precious little of the smug self-indulgence that has so often led us fellow lefties to roll our eyes in embarrassment.
Funny, frightening, sad and relentlessly entertaining, "Columbine" takes Moore on a cross-continental trip to find out why Americans seem so hopelessly addicted to killing each other. The question is a personal one for the filmmaker -- a former teen-age shooting champion and a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association -- but rarely does he upstage his amazing guests, including James Nichols, the brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and a fervent believer in armed resistance. Asked why he doesn't follow the Gandhi model of nonviolence, Nichols fails to recognize the name; later, just a few feet off camera, he playfully puts a gun to his head, leaving the petrified Moore to talk him back to "reality." If this is directorial intrusion, then so be it.
Interviewee Marilyn Manson delivers the movie's most memorable line when he states that the U.S. population is caught in "a campaign of fear and consumption." Moore explores this idea slowly and carefully, making his case that racism, poverty, trigger-happy foreign policy and media distortion work together to make fearful citizens take up arms against each other. It's a far-flung argument, but damned if Moore's targets -- like Charlton Heston, who comes this close to preaching white supremacy -- don't buttress it with their ludicrous statements and actions.
Yes, I said "targets": This is a carefully structured essay, not an impartial inquiry. Moore, though, remains open to unorthodox answers, dispensing early on with the liberal tenet that more guns equals more murders. His theory is more complex, veering close to the esoteric as he assembles a workable portrait of who's shooting who and why. In the course of that search, he not only comes up with a great film, but appears to save some real lives in the process. I couldn't ask more from him, and neither should you.