David Hardy analyzes Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine as a “documentary” per the Academy’s own rules and finds it wanting:
- The Michael Moore production “Bowling for Columbine” just won the Oscar for best documentary. Unfortunately, it is not a documentary, by the Academy’s own definition.
The injustice here is not so much to the viewer, as to the independent producers of real documentaries. These struggle in a field which (despite its real value) receives but a tiny fraction of the recognition and financing of the “entertainment industry.” The award of the documentary Oscar to a $4 million entertainment piece is unjust to the legitimate competitors, disheartening to makers of real documentaries, and sets a precedent which may encourage inspire others to take similar liberties with their future projects.
Bowling makes its points by deceiving and by misleading the viewer. Statements are made which are false. Moore invites the reader to draw inferences which he must have known were wrong. Indeed, even speeches shown on screen are heavily edited, so that sentences are assembled in the speaker’s voice, but which he never uttered.
These occur with such frequency and seriousness as to rule out unintentional error. Any polite description would be inadequate, so let me be blunt. Bowling uses deliberate deception as its primary tool of persuasion and effect.
A film which does this may be a commercial success. It may be amusing, or it may be moving. But it is not a documentary. One need only consult Rule 12 of the rules for the Academy Award: a documentary must be non-fictional, and even re-enactments (much less doctoring of a speech) must stress fact and not fiction.
….The point is not that Bowling is unfair, or lacking in objectivity. One might hope that a documentary would be fair, but nothing rules out a rousing polemic.
The point is far more fundamental: Bowling for Columbine is dishonest. It is fraudulent. It fixes upon a theme, and advances it, whenever necessary, by deception. To trash Heston, it even uses the audio/video editor to assemble a Heston speech that Heston did not give, and to turn sympathetic phrases into arrogant ones. Moore’s object is not to enlighten or to document, but to play his viewer like a violin, to the point where they leave the theater with heartfelt believe in that which is, sadly, quite false.
The bottom line: can a film be called a documentary when the viewer cannot trust an iota of it, not only the narration, but the video? I suppose film critics could debate that one for a long time, and some might prefer entertainment and effect to fact and truth. But the Academy Award rules here are specific. Rule 12 lays out “Special Rules for the Documentary Award.” And it begins with the definition: “A documentary film is defined as a non-fiction motion picture . . . .”
Read the whole thing for a brutal, specific, unrefutable list of fictions, distortions and fabrications in the film. Fiction masquerading as fact can cause more damage than either.