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Filmmaker Michael Moore is a new prankster of the left. Not since Abbie Hoffman has an artist so effectively used guerrilla theater tactics to fight the power. The late Yippie activist combined political passion and outrageous wit to help navigate the nightmares of the Johnson, Nixon and Reagan years.

Moore is an astute cultural agitator for these times. His Bowling for Colum-bine, a documentary that earned a 2002 Cannes festival prize, opened without fanfare at the Nickelodeon in Burlington last week -- perhaps a move to eclipse the picture's already scheduled run beginning this Friday at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. Does multinational Hoyts really care about how Moore examines this society's love affair with guns? Not likely.

Moore's heart-felt, albeit periodically grandiose, expose looks at the way fear has always enriched the ruling class and corrupted "the angels of our better natures," to quote gun victim Abraham Lincoln. We are manipulated into panic on a daily basis -- from pharmaceutical ads about uncontrollable diarrhea to "if it bleeds, it leads" TV news programs to George W. Bush's sound bites about "evil-doers."

America's frightened populace is well-armed and potentially dangerous. This country experiences more than 11,000 shooting deaths every year, compared with a mere 160 in Canada, where guns can be found in seven out of every 10 households.

The film's provocative title was inspired by the fact that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Colorado teen killers, supposedly spent the morning at a bowling alley before their 1999 high school shooting spree in Littleton that "wasted" 13 and injured dozens.

Two of the injured, boys with permanent damage, accompany Moore on the kind of "ambush-journalism" excursion he first introduced in his debut documentary about corporate shenanigans, Roger & Me. In this case, the trio -- one kid's now paralyzed in a wheelchair -- wants to meet with the CEO of K-Mart. One of the company's stores sold the specific bullets, at 17 cents apiece, that were used in the Columbine massacre.

It's an awkward face-off, in which Moore interrogates a hapless PR flak when he can't get to the big boss. Yet the encounter provides unexpected results, a swift victory in a complex struggle against an entire culture of violence.

A more fitting target for Moore's wrath is Charlton Heston, who regularly proclaims that his guns would have to be pried "from my cold, dead hands." But his First Amendment right to say whatever he likes and his Second Amendment right to bear arms are not the point in Bowling. The actor's real offense is timing: He officiated at a National Rifle Association rally in Littleton 10 days after the Harris-Klebold rampage, and at another in Michigan only 48 hours after a 6-year-old Flint boy fatally shot a classmate.

"Moses himself showed up," recalls a Michigan county prosecutor, astonished by Heston's insensitivity.

This incident resonates personally for the sometimes self-righteous and self-aggrandizing Moore, who ricochets from satire to earnest polemic. Flint is his hometown. So, it's not surprising he would confront Heston by simply showing up at the NRA president's gated Hollywood mansion. Moore happens to be a lifetime member of the organization, stemming from a childhood fascination with guns and a marksmanship skill developed as an adolescent.

Although "Moses" agrees to appear on camera, things quickly go sour. He storms away, but not before Moore brandishes a photograph of the dead first-grader from Flint. It's a chilling moment. Critics have slammed Bowling for cornering Heston, now an old man with Alzheimer's. Frankly, viewer sympathy should be reserved for the families of those Michigan 6-year-olds.

Given such scenes, what could possibly be funny about Moore's ambitious treatise? Take your pick: an animated sequence that outlines a subversive history of the United States, as narrated by a talking bullet; or a snippet from a Chris Rock performance, in which the comic suggests that charging $5000 for every bullet might make gunslingers think twice before blowing other people away.

Moore also finds gallows humor in an interview with soybean grower James Nichols. His Michigan farm served as a bomb test site for his brother Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh before they moved on to Oklahoma City. "No," the suspected tofu terrorist answers when asked if pistol-packing Americans should also have the right to own weapons-grade plutonium. "There's wackos out there.

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