Morgan Spurlock's Latest Edutainment Offers Another Reminder Of Why They Hate Us
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is Morgan Spurlock's follow-up to his hit 2004 debut, Super Size Me, and his first documentary made since the two seasons of his FX TV show, 30 Days. Unfortunately, this return to cinema bears the marks of the boob tube at its worst. Spurlock's doc, which feels desperate to entertain at all costs, aims at the dumbest audience members. Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is akin to a feature-length version of that Sting song "Russians." Where Sting hoped that Russians loved their children enough not to nuke the West, Spurlock asks why Muslims and the United States just can't get along. Certainly, he's well-intentioned, but his methods don't lead you to take him seriously.
According to Spurlock, Osama bin Laden? sprang from the news of his wife's pregnancy. He wondered how he could protect his child from the dangers of terrorism and pondered the fact that it actually increased dramatically since Sept. 11. Thus, he decided to travel to Egypt, the Middle East, and Afghanistan in search of bin Laden. After training in security and self-defense--played for laughs to an extent that makes you wonder whether Spurlock really completed these courses--he heads to Egypt and interviews Muslims about their opinions of bin Laden, their own government, and U.S. foreign policy. He does much the same in Morocco, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia (where he dons traditional Arab dress to ask mall patrons where bin Laden is), Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Spurlock's persona is as grounded in shtick as faux-obnoxious Daily Show "reporters" Rob Riggle and Jason Jones. The difference is that he trades in fake naivet%uFFFD rather than acting like an arrogant, overgrown frat boy. It's hard to believe that any of Spurlock's epiphanies actually occurred to him for the first time as his camera crew filmed them. He discovers that both Israelis and Palestinians have blood on their hands, Muslims don't all think alike and most have no sympathy for bin Laden's extremism, and that poverty, lack of education, and political repression breed terrorism. What mind-blowing insights.
Spurlock avoids the pretensions of objectivity present in more traditional documentaries. There's not necessarily anything wrong with using techniques such as re-enactments, animation, and direct address to the camera in docs; after all, pioneers such as Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov resorted to the first two. However, Osama Bin Laden? plays like its target audience is a 15-year-old with ADD, hooked on cartoons, video games, and hip-hop videos. Thus, we get an animated Osama dancing to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." An Arabic-language version of "The Theme From Shaft" serenades the audience when Spurlock touches down in Egypt. Each trip abroad is presented as though it were a new round in a video game. Spurlock banters with a beeping bomb-destroying robot in Israel. None of these touches is nearly as clever or witty as the doc thinks they are.
When discussing Spurlock, Michael Moore is the elephant in the room. Spurlock's emphasis on his own personality and presentation of himself as an entertainer first and a filmmaker second owe a great deal to the Roger and Me auteur. In some respects, Spurlock is a more appealing screen persona than Moore. He avoids anything as wrongheaded as Moore's idealization of Canadian life in Bowling for Columbine and the second half of Sicko or his badgering of an ailing Charlton Heston in Columbine. But he also never comes close to the self-effacing insights of the first half of Sicko.
To his credit, Spurlock does appear to have a few moments of genuine surprise, as when he tours an Israeli school, recently demolished by a bomb. However, predigested ideas and packaged feelings are this doc's main offerings. The birth of his child is a mere gimmick--or, at best, a framing device. Spurlock ends the doc with a credit sequence showing candid images of his travels, set to Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and the simple sincerity and anger of Costello's song blows away the 90 minutes of fake humanism that came before it.