Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Morgan Spurlock takes a wild swing at the War on Terror.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
The same personal, quippy filmmaking that made Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me such a breezy delight all but dooms his second feature-length effort, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? It’s one thing to take the audience through a life lived on nothing but McDonald’s cuisine to prove how unhealthy fast food is; it’s something entirely different to take the audience on a manhunt through the Middle East and south Asia for the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The fact that Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is worth a viewing is a minor miracle, and has little to do with Spurlock’s bag of filmmaking tricks. His charm is undeniable. But the director proves he’s in way over his head with his subject matter, handicapped from the word go with his premise’s naïve novelty: to search for the object of America’s wrath to make the world safe for his soon-to-be-born child. Yes, that’s right; a few months into researching the film, Spurlock learned that his wife, Alex, was pregnant. So while she’s grappling with the complexities of pregnancy, he decides to continue grappling with the so-called War on Terror.
So much has happened since Spurlock conceived the idea for the film in the summer of 2006: the Democratic takeover of Congress, the surge, the oil-price crisis, the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Wouldn’t any reasonable person have learned long ago that this is about more than Osama bin Laden? Spurlock’s application of the same happy-go-lucky style employed in Super Size Me, and later in his TV show 30 Days, to our generation’s most complicated geopolitical subject is one of the film’s countless missteps. It’s a sophomoric sophomore effort.
After finishing his self-concocted crash course of book learning, self-defense lessons and vaccinations, Spurlock sets off with his preconceived notions on a journey to find bin Laden. The search is merely a pretext to learn more about a region and its people. Along the way, we get some U.S. Foreign Policy 101, learning, for the umpteenth time, how the U.S. government’s favoring of oppressive dictators such as Saddam Hussein in the past has sparked countless wars that have come back to haunt us.
He never locates bin Laden – shocker! – but Spurlock does find an impressive panoply of journalists, clerics and literal men on the streets in Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and, finally, Afghanistan. He interviews people both at random and in staged visits, in bazaars, offices and, most effectively, people’s homes. While some of the more strident interviewees barely can conceal their hatred of Americans, more often than not they focus their anger on the government.
These snapshots of feeling, thought and observation serve Spurlock so well that a brainstorming session with his editors could have completely reversed his approach. But nope, he plods on as the smart-talking Ugly American, cracking wise to non-English speaking passersby, or worse, trying to get profound in front of his own camera. In a cringe-worthy scene, he rummages through a bombed-out Israeli classroom, lamenting how there’s just no way he could imagine raising his kids in an atmosphere like this. No shit, Spurlock.
Compounding the problem are insubstantial reminders that while he’s off on his ego trip, Spurlock’s wife is pregnant and alone, fretting over the baby in her womb and the husband in her imagination. The scenes are so short and tacked on they feel like afterthoughts, as dutiful as his phone calls home.
But the film develops its rare tension against all these odds as Spurlock stumbles into Afghanistan and is embedded with a unit in the Taliban-dominated tribal areas. Here his life is as at-risk as the soldiers assigned to protect him. He even elicits a telling comment from the company commander about how this military effort is meaningless without aid and support to the region’s people.
You can guess the conclusion to all of this. It’s a journey, after all, which needs a Hollywood ending that Spurlock is happy to provide. But in the film’s closing credits, he reminds us not just who we’re fighting for, but who we’re fighting over. The Ugly American’s ensuing montage of all those faraway faces helps bring the subject closer to home.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? ( 2 ) Directed by Morgan Spurlock • Starring Morgan Spurlock • PG-13, 93 min • At the Osio Cinemas.