The perspective of a documentary purist would cast Michael Moore as a sham, someone whose blatant self-insertion into his subject matter ruins the ever-sacred objectivity. The perspective of Joe American, though, for whom Moore clearly makes his films, is that he’s a wickedly acute commentator on America’s ills, as stunningly showcased in his latest, Bowling for Columbine.

In all his films, Moore’s presence as a character reflects us as a viewer, even though few of us are probably as disheveled or unshaven as he is. And he was doing the too-funny-to-be-fake interviews long before The Daily Show. In fact, Columbine’s first half-hour is riddled with laugh-out-loud moments when Moore is interviewing rubes that also happen to be gun-loving nutcases. 

In the opening scene, Moore opens an account at a bank that will give him a free gun for doing so, and not just one type of gun — he’s got his choice of 500. Try not to fall out of your chair laughing as he cocks and aims the gun in the bank’s lobby. And his open, at-home interview with James Nichols, brother of convicted bomber Terry Nichols, is as comedic as it is chilling.

But Columbine then takes a sharp turn for the somber and the abstract. Moore isn’t just out to laugh at gun nuts, he’s out to find any sort of explanation for America’s obsession with violence throughout history. His search for this slippery notion is a far cry from the straightforward slams on corporate greed in his previous films, Roger & Me and The Big One, but he’s equally on-target, armed with his trademark wit and quiet fury.

Moore’s well-supported theories are that America is violent because we have had the notion of necessary fear bred into us to the point that it need not even be specific. And the blame game for school shootings such as those in Columbine begins because it is not as sad as the truth of never actually knowing why — a viewpoint conveyed no better than in a scene when Moore interviews a home-security expert in Littleton, Colo. 

When discussing Columbine, the man’s voice cracks and his eyes gradually fill with tears. When asked what’s wrong, he says, “Columbine upsets me sometimes because the scope of the killing was just impossible to understand.”

In the past, Moore’s angry eye was spurred by the desolation of America as seen in his hometown of Flint, Mich. (which is shown here). But in this, his finest documentary to date, Moore clearly and convincingly expresses his rage at the way fear, violence and the ignorance they both breed are whittling away the country’s soul.