Watching Morgan Spurlock’s jokey first-person documentary Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, I felt a second head sprout from my shoulder like in the old horror film The Manster. The first head watched Spurlock waylay women swathed in black in a Pakistan shopping mall—“Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?”—and cringed at the director’s facetiousness. The second said, “Sniff all you like at the Ugly American, but a narrator with a clownish persona might be the political documentary’s best hope.” The second head went on to say that conventional docs—even brilliant ones, like the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side—reach limited audiences and preach largely to the converted. But barreling blowhard Michael Moore stirred things up, and so did Spurlock when he clogged his arteries eating nothing but fast food in the gross-out odyssey Super Size Me. Maybe Spurlock, who doesn’t have Moore’s strident political agenda, can open the eyes of people who don’t read highbrow magazines or listen to the BBC. Maybe he can demonstrate to Americans how much a huge segment of the world’s population despises us—and what we can do to begin to clean up the mess. The first head said, “You’re talking about politics, not art,” and the second head split off and pitched the first into a volcano.
The political head having triumphed, it will now concede that Spurlock is a slippery character whose chief motivation is to make himself a brand name. He begins Where in the World…? by telling us that his wife is pregnant and that the U.S. government’s $25 million bounty on bin Laden would come in handy vis-à-vis private school. He poses rather obvious questions (I’m quoting from a tie-in book): “What drove [bin Laden] to give up the cushy life in favor of waging jihad? For that matter, what the hell is a jihad? What’s a fatwa? What do other Muslims think of Osama? Do they all hate us, or is it just a lunatic fringe?” Before setting off on his fact-finding journey to Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Spurlock tones up, learns how to react when someone yells “Bomb!” and submits on camera to a battery of shots for yellow fever, diphtheria, etc. Then he battles bin Laden in a rock-’em-sock-’em video simulation that ends with the arch-villain sprouting a jet pack and blasting off, presumably for points east.
This is all very amusing, but the heart of the film is this faux-innocent’s interviews with professors, journalists, shopkeepers, and passersby. Egypt—our great ally as well as the birthplace of Mohamed Atta, Al-Zawahiri, and the Islamist-jihadist philosopher Sayyid Qutb—emerges as a prototype of repression: People hate the U.S. because it funds the bogus democracy, but many hate bin Laden, too, for helping their leaders justify further repression. The Palestinians say they don’t care for bin Laden because they’re a secular society, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone beating the drums against Israel—whose “settlers” subsequently tell Spurlock it’s God’s will that they plunk themselves down on disputed borders. Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t share their thoughts on bin Laden because they’re busy putting their black hats over the camera lens and physically attacking Spurlock. It’s an accomplishment to look more repulsive than the Taliban.
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is mostly a travelogue of places you don’t want to visit, like the Israeli schoolhouse blown up by a rocket or the Saudi Arabian square where kids play ball in the afternoons after the blood of the morning’s executions has run down the drain. Spurlock’s pregnant wife phones to say she’s getting bigger, then he packs his bags and heads deeper into bin Laden country—Afghanistan’s Tora Bora, where the U.S. had the Al Qaeda leader trapped, and the mountains of Pakistan, where some people clearly do know where bin Laden is but would be even less friendly than the ultra-Orthodox Jews. After the Army allows him to shoot off guns and even—woo-hoo!—launch a rocket in bin Laden’s general direction (our tax dollars at work), Spurlock punks out. Apparently, he didn’t want to end with a video of his own beheading.
The film is a hodgepodge, and it closes with a whimper. But along the way some lucid voices slip through: the Afghan who recounts the broken promises of an American ambassador to rebuild a school, the Saudi suffocating under a government (our allies) in which there’s no separation of church and state. The movie made me think—as I often do—of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. Gray rivets us with the story of Pol Pot’s psychotic purges, but that’s not how he begins. He begins with himself as an out-of-work actor hoping for a part in a movie, and listening—eager to make a good impression—to director Roland Joffé hold forth on the film’s setting. Would we listen as intently without the People magazine point of entry? Would we watch Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? without the clueless American father-to-be? Would this review be as lively if it didn’t begin with an image from a grade-Z Japanese horror movie?