[18 April 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“If I’ve learned anything from action movies,” Morgan Spurlock says as he embarks on his latest adventure, “it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lonely guy.” It’s endearing in a smirky way, the sort of joke for which the filmmaker may be best known, taking aim at an obvious target and so soliciting his viewers’ complicity. We’re all in this together, the joke establishes, we understand the stakes and feel smart.
This formulaic simplicity is slightly deceptive. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? poses its titular question so it is at once literal and metaphorical. Like Super-Size Me, it follows a sort of quest structure, wherein Spurlock, moved by the imminent birth of his own child—in 29 weeks—travels to the Middle East. He says he’s interested in making the world safer for his family, finding the Ur Terrorist who threatens and so shapes, in immediate, material ways, experience from Afghanistan to London to Sri Lanka. But even as Spurlock says he means to discover where bin Laden is hiding, the film is designed to reveal the world where he lives, the world that has produced bin Laden, that continues to frighten Westerners and galvanize U.S. political, economic, and militaristic discourses. “Osama,” he muses, “Maybe he’s dead, maybe he’s on dialysis.” But, Spurlock adds, the U.S. “war on terror” hasn’t produced precisely the promised results: “In the past six years, more acts of terror worldwide than in the 26 years before.”
Spurlock leaves Alexandra in Brooklyn and journeys forth, stopping off for a “whole bunch of shots and a whole bunch of prescriptions” (polio, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, etc.), and a bit of “self-defense training.” Plainly absurd, these scenes allude to the poor preparation and overwhelming presumption that shaped the U.S. “mission” to pursue bin Laden back in 2001. Rendered in goofy “action hero” scenarios, Spurlock’s education includes rolling and ducking, avoiding grenades (“Turn away and dive”), kneeling solemnly with his instructor to observe the effects of a guy whose head has exploded (red-paint splatter on a wall). Cursed out and put through paces (“This is not a fucking game!”), Spurlock suggests there is “Crazy shit happening around me,” his direct address again inviting you to see just how artificial and overcharged and self-inflating such activity seems to him.
Now ready as he’ll ever be—and instructed to grow a beard while he’s traveling, because “You obviously look very foreign”—Spurlock stops in countries including Egypt, Morocco, Israel, and Palestine, all leading to a not-quite-climactic trip to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where bin Laden is reported to be hiding. While Spurlock declare his determination to “explore the world he comes from,” the film shows antic animation and jokey inserts (a “To-do list” that includes “Clean cave” and “Kill the infidels”). Repeatedly the movie runs this trick, asking viewers to consider the implications of stereotyping and fear-mongering while also engaging in same, the gag simultaneously a cultural critique and too cute. This rhythm is underscored as the film offers up a videogame version of hunting terrorists, with Spurlock cast as a nimble ninja-style fighter against bin Laden equipped with a magically lethal beard: the conflict is “not a fucking game,” the animation suggests, but it regularly gets translated as such.
A series of traveloguey images locates Spurlock in deserts and city streets while also indicating the clichés that color U.S. visions of the Middle East. A shot of Spurlock on a camel riding around the pyramids brings him to Egypt, while his voiceover introduces bin Laden’s “right-hand man,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, represented on the first of a series of baseball cards featuring a league of most dangerous bad guys (these will include Mohamed Atta and Ramzi Yousef). Spurlock’s first in-person encounter, with an uncle of al-Zawahiri, establishes a pattern, wherein he makes nice and offers softball questions, but allows his interview subjects to speak their own, sometimes revealing, pieces. So, when Spurlock asks the uncle, “If you knew where he was, you wouldn’t turn him in for $25 million?” the point is the ridiculous U.S. assumption that cash money is the key to this battle. And when he asks, “If al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden disappeared… would things change?” the uncle has a ready answer: “The seed sewn by America cannot disappear short-term. We need another foreign policy.”
This response is echoed repeatedly, as interviewees on the street declare their antipathy to the U.S. government (“You want to occupy Egypt”), to Bush and Cheney, but not necessarily to the “American people.” It’s not news to make this point, but Spurlock hits it again and again, in service of his primary argument, that people around the world want similar lives, to raise their families and not get bombed. The primary obstacles have to do with global manipulating, propaganda, and land. Spurlock tells the much-repeated story of Franklin Roosevelt describing Trujillo (in alternate versions, Somoza): “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” A cartoon-and-footage history provides a look at the various dictators and thugs the U.S. has supported, then refuted in the Middle East, from the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein. “We have sons of bitches all the time,” Spurlock observes, used to accommodate shifting U.S. political, economic or ideological needs.
By way of illustration, Spurlock speaks with Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. As they walk through impoverished areas, Bhgat says, “The U.S. can no longer claim moral ground. In Egypt, the government is corrupt and it is backed by the U.S.” Spurlock’s encounters with individuals in other countries hint at similar situations and perceptions. His subjects are poor and middle-class, official and regular citizens, variously receptive, skeptical, and curious, self-critical as well as tired of U.S. bullying. Frustrations have to do with poverty and propaganda: “It is not from Islam,” says one interviewee, “to kill yourself and blow yourself up.”
In turn, Spurlock declares, “The ‘war on terror’ is a bogus term.” Even as he suggests that Middle Eastern schools, “From a very young age… start manipulating the children,” the film allows—especially in its video game sections—that similar, not-always subtler manipulations take place in the U.S., creating expectations that the film alternately debunks or reinforces. Where in the World highlights some instances when Spurlock and his crew appear less than welcome, the most egregious occurring in Israel. Accosted on the street by angry conservatives who believe the filming is intrusive, he uses the scene to strut a bit, pretending to be shocked that he would be the object of such scorn and abuse. Later he visits a school in Saudi Arabia, where an interview with two students focuses on their anxious reticence and checking across the room with minders, until it’s shut down all together. While the film insinuates that the kids’ answers are limited because they have a limited media or educational access to the U.S., it makes you realize that the same could be said of U.S. students: how many high schoolers could tell you where Saudi Arabia is located, let alone describe its current attitudes toward the U.S.?
The most frequent mode, however, is not criticism but solicitation. Spurlock visits with a poor Moroccan family, whose father wishes to provide food and education for his children, so their lives might be better, then comments on the difficulty of reaching this basic goal. Shots of Israeli bulldozers at work in contested land in Gaza are juxtaposed with images of Israeli cops investigating a “suspicious package” on a city street. After a moment of “let’s-ride-along” with a bomb squad thrills, Spurlock pulls back. “I miss my family,” he says. This project, for all its self-congratulatory energy, is also wearying. Spurlock goes home in time for his son’s birth, but if there’s an end of violence and distrust possible in the Middle East, it is not yet visible.