As a work of cinematic entertainment and political provocation, Michael Moore’s widely acclaimed new documentary “Bowling for Columbine” qualifies as a substantial success. Despite its outrageously incoherent, even contradictory, ideological agenda, the movie offers an engaging surface that displays frisky originality, frequent wit, skillful editing, wildly ambitious scope and often impassioned advocacy.

Moore goes beyond the role of mischievous, irreverent blue collar fatso that he popularized in his previous films (most notably “Roger & Me”) and his short-lived television show (“TVNation”). This time, Moore promises nothing less than a penetrating exploration of “the fearful heart and soul of the United States,” and in the course of guiding us on that journey he comes across as irresponsible, demagogic, shamelessly manipulative and, in the end, unspeakably cruel.

The title refers to reports that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attended an early morning bowling class on the same day in 1999 that they killed 15 people at Columbine High School. Moore therefore insists that it makes as much sense to blame bowling for their murderous rampage as to consider the gory computer games or violent videos or satanic music they enthusiastically enjoyed.

In fact, in his coverage of the Columbine massacre, Moore totally ignores the killers’ fascination with Nazism (they chose to attack their classmates on Hitler’s birthday) and instead tries to blame Lockheed-Marietta, the prominent defense contractor. It turns out that Lockheed operates a missile plant in Littleton, Colo., not far from Columbine High, so Moore makes a feeble effort to connect this endeavor with the maniacal slaughter by two teenagers. Speaking to a corporate flack, Moore tries to suggest that the “weapons of death” produced by the company somehow contributed to the culture of death that motivated Klebold and Harris. When the cheerful, bespectacled PR spokesperson politely observes “I don’t really see the connection,” Moore attempts to undermine him by offering a menacing shot of a huge ballistic missile.

This form of non-argument permeates the film. Much later, when Moore returns to his blighted hometown of Flint, Mich., to focus on a 6-year-old who brought a gun to school and accidentally killed one of his classmates, he tries to associate the crime with Dick Clark. The mother of the child, working hard to escape welfare, toiled part-time at a shopping mall diner that peddles nostalgia under the Dick Clark name – part of a growing national chain of such establishments. Moore therefore tracked down Mr. Clark and attempted to interview him about why he pays “his” employees so poorly. When Clark sensibly ignores him, gets into a waiting van and orders the driver to speed away, Moore turns indignantly to the camera as if to suggest that Clark’s refusal to talk with him represented some shameful cover-up.

Other interviews prove more successful, and Moore occasionally lets his targets talk, usually to their own detriment. Coming across as particularly demented (and apparently dangerous) is James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City co-conspirator Terry Nichols, who speaks with twitchy and wild-eyed pride about the arsenal of weapons and bomb-making material he maintains in his remote tofu farm (yes, he grows politically correct soy beans) in Michigan.

Shock-rocker Marilyn Manson gets far more sympathetic treatment, offering an articulate backstage defense of his music, and Matt Stone, Littleton native and co-creator of the scatological “South Park” cartoon series, receives the indulgent handling due a saint or prophet for his dismissive condemnation of suburbia.

Moore even borrows Stone’s distinctive cartoon style for the movie’s most outrageous and audacious sequence – a brief cartoon history of the United States in which nervous Americans, from the founding fathers to modern businessmen, display the murderous tendencies produced by intense fear, as they recoil in horror from the King, Native Americans, African slaves, working men and all foreigners, establishing, according to Moore, a tradition of distinctively Yankee violence.

Another purportedly historical interlude features a parade of alleged outrages in U.S. foreign policy, including the normal lefty litany about “progressive regimes” (Mossadegh in Iran, Allende in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) undermined by the big, bad Central Intelligence Agency. This sequence concludes with footage of the plane striking the second World Trade Center tower while a caption proclaims: “Sept. 11, 2001: Osama bin Laden uses his expert CIA training to kill 3,000 Americans.”

Of course, this image goes by too quickly for the average viewer to remind himself that the CIA – which never directly “trained” bin Laden at all – most certainly never encouraged him or anyone else to smash hijacked airplanes into skyscrapers.

Terrorism remains only a passing concern to Mr. Moore, who announces early in his rambling, shambling, arbitrarily assembled film that his real focus involves an explanation for the staggering murder rate in the United States. Meanwhile, he shamefully exaggerates America’s position as “the world leader in murders” by listing only firearms killings – ignoring the fact that in many nations (particularly in the Third World) the heavy majority of all victims die through stabbings, clubbings, stranglings, stoning and other means.

Mr. Moore also only mentions the absolute numbers of murder victims in each country he assesses – so naturally a huge nation like the U.S. (population 280 million) will look vastly worse than Canada (population 29 million). As a matter of fact, in terms of murder rate (the number of killings per 100,000 population) the U.S. ranks no higher than ninth in the world, and fares only slightly worse than such “enlightened” and prosperous societies as Finland, Australia and, yes, Canada.

Unlike more simple-minded gun-control advocates, Moore (who boasts in the film of his long-time membership in the NRA) never suggests that the reason for the lower crime rate north of the border concerns the availability of guns. He makes a point of demonstrating on camera how easy it is to buy weapons and ammunition in Ontario, and accurately observes that the rate of gun ownership in Canada (a nation of hunters) comes close to that in the United States.

How, then, does Moore explain his portrayal of America as a blood-soaked, paranoid, deeply demented, incurably violent and sick society, while our neighbors to the north come across in his account as the privileged citizens of a friendly, peaceable paradise? In part, the movie credits Canada’s more “advanced” social-welfare system (read socialism) with special emphasis on its “free” medical care. He also praises Canadians for their utopian lack of racism, pointing out that with a “minority population” of 13 percent they live in a “diverse” nation just as we do. Unfortunately, he never notes that Asians represent the most numerous “minority” in Canada, and that in all Western countries these immigrants assimilate (and inter-marry with whites) more quickly and frequently than blacks or Latinos.

Racial issues provide the movie with a grand finale that counts as one of the most despicable (and riveting) cinematic exercises ever featured in a major release. The filmmaker and on-camera star concludes his non-linear voyage by pursuing an interview at the home of Charlton Heston, Hollywood legend and president of the NRA.

The resulting confrontation is almost unbearably painful to watch, as Heston begins the interchange looking robust, masterful, confident and charming and then, under Moore’s blatantly unfair and needling questioning, slowly crumbles to the sad status of a frail old man. At first, Moore demands explanations for Heston’s appearance at NRA rallies in Colorado and Flint, Mich., shortly after the gun-related tragedies there. Then he moves on to try to force his prey into a corner over America’s persistently high homicide rate (without acknowledging the dramatic declines of recent years).

Finally, with Moore flaunting his favorite example of “safe, peaceful” Canada, and pushing relentlessly for some basis for America’s more numerous murders, he forces a reluctant, uncertain suggestion from Heston. “I don’t know,” the great actor begins, and then tentatively mentions the greater racial diversity in the United States.

Mr. Moore pounces on this statement, and virtually accuses Heston of racism – never acknowledging (or telling his audience) that the current president of the NRA enjoyed a personal friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King and participated more prominently in the civil-rights movement and its marches than any other major Hollywood star. Unwilling (or unable) to make this point himself, Mr. Heston merely disconnects his microphone, gets up out of his chair and walks away from Moore and his camera – a wounded refugee seeking shelter in another wing of his own home.

Even without Charlton Heston’s courageous announcement of his own battle with Alzheimer’s symptoms (an announcement which Moore, of course, never references), this appalling interview would represent a new low in a manipulative filmmaker’s checkered career. While posing as a rebel, a loner and crusader for common sense, Mr. Moore remains a totally conventional and thoroughly predictable leftist, particularly in his ill-concealed distaste for America and ordinary Americans. He never bothers to challenge politically correct assumptions, and typically dispenses with any untrendy or unpopular idea – such as Heston’s connection of high murder rates to the nation’s racial composition – as if it remained so obviously idiotic that it required no rebuttal.

As a matter of fact, the suspicion voiced by Mr. Heston that our homicide rate relates directly to our unusually diverse racial makeup proves more right than wrong. The most recent Department Of Justice statistics indicate that African-Americans commit murder at a rate more than eight times higher than white people, and now represent the majority of U.S. homicide arrests (while only 12 percent of the total population). In other words, if you isolate the murder rate among white people only, on both sides of the border, the difference between the U.S. and Canada almost entirely disappears.

That fact may produce discomfort, and certainly demands serious explanation (with reference, in part, to this nation’s persistent history of racism) but it deserves acknowledgment before Moore’s movie succeeds in trashing the exalted reputation of one of the most decent and respected actors and activists in Hollywood history. Charlton Heston has enjoyed nearly 60 years of stable, loving marriage (a rarity anywhere, but especially in Tinseltown) and earned the respect and affection even of colleagues who disagree with him on every political proposition.

The French may embrace Michael Moore’s America bashing screed (they unanimously awarded it the “55th Anniversary Prize” at the Cannes Film Festival), but citizens of this country will remember Heston’s work in movies and in politics long after this sly but ultimately nasty little film has been forgotten. In the end, the wandering, discursive and intermittently brilliant “Bowling for Columbine” amounts to a cinematic gutter ball. Rated R for harsh language, and for scenes of chilling violence – including chilling surveillance camera video of the actual Columbine massacre.

TWO STARS.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.