Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden: Morgan Spurlock’s sophomore slump

posted 5/2/09 on 2009: A Blog Odyssey

My apologies for being too lazy to update this blog for several weeks, my friends. Between my last semester of college drawing to a close and preparing for and covering Ebertfest (which kicked major ass, by the way — my condolences to those who were not able to attend a single screening), I’ve sorta had my hands tied. Expect new posts to come regularly in the near future, especially once finals week is over. I’m also going to start streamlining a bit more to reduce word count so these write-ups take less time. That way I can blog about more films. And without further adieu . . .

With President Obama insisting on intensifying the War in Afghanistan despite the protests of many on the political left, it may be of interest to revisit a satirical documentary that debuted at the January 2008 Sundance Film Festival: Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden. Besides bringing that awesome 90s Carmen Sandiago show to mind with its title, this seems like a promising rental since the filmmaker behind it is none other than Morgan Spurlock, the guy who disgusted and amazed us with 2004’s Super Size Me.

You’d think from that apt and humorous tirade on fast food culture that Spurlock would be just the right guy to expose the absurdities of our costly manhunt for the ever-elusive bin Laden. A peek at its RottenTomatoes rating, however, might make you think twice.


THE FILM

The movie begins with Spurlock’s announcement that his wife is pregnant. He’s joyous over the news, but worried at the same time about the world his child will be born into, what with international terrorism on the rise. It’s difficult to tell whether his logic actually went this way when pitching the idea for this movie to producers, but his upcoming fatherhood becomes a frame story for his extended trip to the Middle East.

As if this project couldn’t wait for after his child’s birth, Spurlock decides to spend most of the second half of his wife’s pregnancy touring Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan searching for bin Laden. Despite the goofy animations and over-the-top, Michael Moore-styled questioning about the whereabouts of the planet’s most wanted man in random grocery stores, his search for Osama isn’t literal but actually a series of interviews with everyday Middle Eastern people about their thoughts on violent fundamentalism. If Spurlock really wanted a shot of finding him, he wouldn’t have wussed out in Pakistan, turning away at the sight of a sign warning foreigners to keep out of the tribal lands suspected of housing bin Laden.

Naturally, almost all of his interviewees said exactly what we’d expect them to: that terrorism is not a real tenet of the Muslim faith, that people like bin Laden — though attractive to many desperate, uneducated people — produce a negative image of all Middle Easterners the same way that the U.S. “world police” government frequently gives a bad name to all Americans. Their greatest hope is just to co-exist peacefully, which the U.S. complicates by funding oppressive dictators and playing right into the hands of the extremist groups by bringing war instead of actual assistance.

It was, however, interesting to see how hostility toward questioning came strongest from people in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the more financially well-off countries of the region. While the dirt-poor folks of Afghanistan and Palestine seemed to welcome Spurlock’s questions with open arms, ready to speak their minds, several Israelis actually shoved Spurlock and threatened to break his camera. An interview with two students in a Saudi school was ended quickly by the principal when Spurlock simply asked the boys to give their opinions about America.

With wealth comes indoctrination and, in turn, closed-mindedness.

The problem with this movie is that — like in many Hollywood endeavors — there is so little subtlety and too much repetition. Spurlock asked the same questions over and over again. I would also argue that the pregnancy frame story added little to the presentation, only serving to reduce a potentially serious inquiry of world relations to a shallow, “me”-centered film. I understand that water births are totally in style right now, but please leave that footage for a movie where it would be relevant.

In short, it’s an interesting project, but I’d like to see it done again with a different filmmaker at the helm.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • An alternate ending, in which Spurlock uses video game graphics to depict a final showdown between himself and bin Laden.
  • An interview — which should not have been cut (I would say that men’s voices far outweigh women’s in this documentary) — with three young women from Afghanistan. They discuss the segregation between men and women in their society, agreeing that it is definitely a problem but refuting the popular Western conception that Arab women have no freedoms.
  • An animated segment giving the brief history lesson covered in Charlie Wilson’s War: that part of our problem in Afghanistan is due to the fact that the Reagan administration gave the country weapons to fight the Soviets in the 80s. Then when they succeeded in repelling the USSR aggressors, America just vanished without helping them rebuild schools, hospitals, etc., leaving room for people like bin Laden to assume power.


STATS

  • Won the Golden Trailer Award for Best Documentary and the Most Popular Documentary Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
  • Rated 37% on RottenTomatoes
  • Running time: 90 minutes
  • Rated PG-13


COMING TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

The conclusion of the Blockbuster Total Access saga.