DVD Review: Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s follow-up to his 2004 hit Super Size Me, the film that, along with Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction bestseller, Fast Food Nation, is responsible for millions of people swearing off fast food for at least a couple of weeks. This time around Spurlock examines why the U.S.A. doesn’t seem to be able to catch the planet’s most-wanted terrorist, and uses that journey to try to understand the issues at the root of buzzwords (buzzphrases?) like “war on terror” and “Islamic extremism.”
As with Super Size Me, Spurlock uses a personal journey as a jumping-off point to discuss a much larger topic. The film opens with Spurlock learning that his wife (previously seen as his vegan girlfriend in Super Size Me) is pregnant. Filled with doubts about the safety of the world he’s about to bring a child into, Spurlock decides now is the time for him to get to the bottom of where Osama bin Laden is. (Yeah, it’s a bit of a logical leap.)
The beginning of the movie is actually one of its most chilling (and still somehow hilarious) sequences; before setting off on his jaunt through the Middle East – he’s literally going to hunt for bin Laden himself – Spurlock takes a crash course in Middle East safety, learning from experts about how to avoid sniper attacks, how to behave if kidnapped and what to do if a grenade is tossed in his immediate vicinity. It’s the kind of training all journalists and aid workers go through before traveling to the region, and it’s terrifying to watch Spurlock learn first-hand just how dangerous that part of the world is. You can see him quietly reconsidering his decision on the movie’s subject matter while he’s learning how to discern the likely location of a sniper from a blood-splatter pattern above a fake corpse. From there Spurlock actually travels to the region, bouncing from less-volatile-but-still-pretty-messed-up places like Egypt and Morocco to Israel the all-out war zone of Afghanistan. Along the way Spurlock speaks to everyday folks as well as various public officials of varying stripes to try to find out what they think of America (they’re largely okay with Americans, but hate U.S. foreign policy in general, and George W. Bush in particular) and violence being carried out in the name of Islam (a few think it’s good, but most of them don’t). He also occasionally asks half-jokingly if they know where Osama bin Laden is, and the responses range from people kidding around with him to others seriously telling him where they think he probably is.
Spurlock’s real point in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is that Muslims are not the evil bogeymen that the American media often paints them to be. Which, on the one hand, is I guess a pretty noble undertaking, but at the same time it also says some pretty uncomfortable things about the people he’s aiming his documentary at. I realize that as a guy with a degree in journalism and whose job entails him reading the news pretty much all day long, I’m probably more informed about world affairs than Joe Middle America, but the myth Spurlock seems to be trying to debunk, that “most/all Muslims are terrorists,” is one that I hadn’t realized was even somewhat believed by people who weren’t ignorant racists. But then again, I’m Canadian, and this film is therefore not really aimed at me. That said, his efforts to show that people in the Arab world really are just people is, if the fear of Muslims in America is as bad as Spurlock suggests it is, a point that probably could stand to be made pretty forcefully, and I think he does a good job. But as I watched animated segments outlining subjects like Middle East history and the U.S. government’s shady past overthrowing foreign regimes and overlooking the terrible acts of the regional strongmen Washington decided were a necessary evil at the time (like Saddam Hussein in the 1980s), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching American Foreign Policy for Dummies.
The other problem I had with the film is that Spurlock takes the title – which I'd assumed was basically just a rhetorical device for him to investigate a larger issue – too literally. At the end of the film he's considering venturing into the incredibly dangerous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Osama bin Laden is generally understood to be hiding out, and tries to give his decision some kind of dramatic weight. At that point in the film I’d long since forgotten about the fact that Spurlock is ostensibly actually trying to find bin Laden on his own, a notion that, especially at that point in the film, he’s made pretty clear that one dude with a documentary crew is not going to find him. It’s faintly ridiculous, and I felt vaguely like my intelligence had been insulted; Spurlock just spent the entire movie explaining why it’s almost impossible to find bin Laden (while unfortunately not bothering to examine just how hard the U.S. government is really looking for him) as well as exploring the notion that even if he was found tomorrow and executed the day after that, nothing would really change. If Spurlock had left the title as just a hook, the movie would have been more effective.
Spurlock is still very good at crafting an incredibly watchable documentary, and Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is free of Michael Moore-esque soapboxing on Spurlock’s part. The real points he’s making are that “Islamic extremists” make up a tiny fraction of the Muslim population, and that many in the Arab world (albeit for different reasons) hate Osama bin Laden almost as much as any American does. It’s about how the disconnect between regular Americans and American foreign policy mirrors the disconnect between regular Muslims and the crazy people who want to blow things up. And for all my issues outlined above with what felt like Spurlock’s aiming the film at people who are content to accept world events as spoonfed by Fox News or CNN, I was still engaged for the entire film, and I laughed a lot. Spurlock’s a very funny guy, and he’s got a real talent for presenting his points – especially about so serious and complicated a subject as the Middle East and American foreign policy – in a compelling an entertaining way. If you regularly read the news and are even a little skeptical about mainstream American media, there probably isn’t much in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? that you don’t already know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining documentary, and Spurlock’s heart is certainly in the right place.
There isn’t a ton of extra material on the Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? DVD other than a handful of deleted scenes. As with most documentaries, they’re actually all pretty interesting, they just don’t really fit into the movie’s larger narrative (I particularly enjoyed the chat with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres). The only real exception is an interview with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness, which suggests Spurlock reigned in the scope of the movie to cover just the issue of terrorism in the Middle East; it’s sort of too bad, because a different perspective on the whole idea that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is a point that deserved to be made in the film, and I get the feeling that Spurlock didn't want to open up that particular can of worms. But hey, that’s what DVDs are for.
There’s also an alternate ending that, while clever, is incredibly preachy, and more than a little cheesy, so I can understand why Spurlock went with the ending he did. It’s far more effective, less condescending and fits in far better with his own personal arc in the film.
Labels: documentary, DVD review, politics