Grade: B+

Michael Moore is usually referred to as a documentary filmmaker, but what the Michigan activist really is, is a cinematic muckraker. Ever since his famous debut in “Roger & Me” (1989), Moore, a chubby gnome with camera and baseball cap, has demonstrated that he’s not so much interested in presenting a dryly objective portrait of some social problem as in building a case against corruption and official misconduct. Moore is a man of strong opinions, a self-proclaimed champion of the underdog and the underclass; but he’s also a person of sharp wit with a highly developed sense of irony, and he puts those traits to good use in assembling what amount to simultaneously humorous and deeply troubling briefs against those he perceives as villains and fools. In “Bowling for Columbine” he takes on his largest target yet–the culture of violence in the United States–using as a centerpiece the terrible school shooting in Colorado in 1999. But that episode, and the large numbers of death-by-bullet that occur in the US each year, lead to larger issues–what there might be in American history and society as a whole that encourages a devotion to firearms and a willingness to use them. In the process Moore attacks what he perceives as an American tendency to be an international bully and a determination on the part of powerful forces in the country to encourage (for economic reasons) such a level of fear in the population as to make citizens believe they’re in desperate need of personal protection. Ultimately, he argues, much of the blood shed annually in America is the result of US governmental policy and corporate pandering to the baseless passions of consumers.

When put in those terms, the picture–whose title derives from the fact that the Columbine killers attended a high school bowling class only hours before their rampage–sounds like a dry didactic exercise. But it’s not, because as narrator Moore uses his pudgy everyman persona so skillfully, ambling disheveled through the various episodes with a amiably pugnacious attitude that only occasionally comes across as calculated, and because he’s imaginative in devising humorous ways to make his point (and in complementing them with more serious, often very affecting moments). The opening, for example, is a gem, with Moore starting an account at a Michigan bank that bestows free rifles on new depositors. Then, at the close, he covers the horrendous Michigan incident in which a first-grader killed a classmate with a gun lifted from his uncle. The juxtaposition of the two episodes from his home state encapsulates his basic method, but doesn’t exhaust the means he uses to achieve his ends. Moore is also a master of the low-keyed interview in which he lures the subject into making himself look ridiculous: his questioning of Michigan militia members and Terry Nichol’s conspiracy-nut brother does its work quietly and efficiently. He also uses his guerilla-camera technique to good effect, catching Dick Clark and Charlton Heston (whose insensitivity as NRA president he assails) in unflattering guises. (On the other hand, he offers inviting opportunities for Matt Stone, the co-creator of “South Park,” and Marilyn Manson, the frequently-criticized rocker, to express–quite articulately, it should be noted–views with which he agrees.) Moore also trots out his old “Roger & Me” anti-corporate attack mode by taking two students wounded at Columbine to K-Mart’s headquarters to ask the firm to stop selling ammunition in its stores (a request made stronger not only by the kids’ physical conditions but by video footage of the actual shooting spree, in which bullets purchased at K-Mart were used). In this case, the company shows a remarkable sense of responsibility by quickly agreeing to the request. On a less provocative note, Moore travels to Canada to uncover the attitudes there that might explain why, even with lots of guns about, they’re so rarely used in murders. He finds a more relaxed, open society in which fear isn’t as prevalent a factor.

Probably the most flagrantly incendiary portions of “Bowling for Columbine” are cartoon segments and newsreel montages in which Moore lays out, in a fashion that will gleefully infuriate guns fanciers and knee-jerk militarists, his “historical” reading of why firearms have played so important a role in American society, how the US government’s bellicose, interventionist foreign policies are reflective of the population’s attitudes, and why those attitudes are fostered by the media and the economic power structure. Most will probably find his argument more than a little simplistic (and his evidence highly selective) even if they agree with him; some will dismiss it simply as rabid, left-wing propaganda. But love Moore or loathe him, you’re got to admire his grubby, take-no-prisoners approach and the intensity with which he’s willing to express his convictions. “Bowling for Columbine” tackles one of the most persistent questions about American society (check out the books by Richard Slotkin and David Brion Davis, and the recent controversy surrounding the scholarship of Michael Bellesiles on the gun culture in early America, if you doubt that) and does so with passion and cagey rhetorical skill. It’s hardly an objective documentary, but it’s great cinematic polemic.