Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/18/08 00:00:00
After making a name and career for himself with his groundbreaking documentary “Roger & Me,” Michael Moore went on to do a TV series that was essentially a small-screen version of his big-screen success (“TV Nation”), a failed bit of political satire (“Canadian Bacon”) and another documentary that was a largely unfocused work that was more about him than anything else (“The Big One”) before righting things at last with the brilliant “Bowling for Columbine.” When Morgan Spurlock made his own splash on the film world with his own muck-raking documentary, the fast-food expose “Super Size Me,” his canny method of finding a narrative hook for his material (spending a month eating nothing but crap from McDonalds to show just how quickly and effectively it can ravage a person’s health and well-being) and his wise-ass persona caused many people to refer to him as the new Michael Moore. It would appear that he has taken that comparison to heart because his subsequent career seems to be following the same path blazed by Moore. First he gave us a TV show that was essentially a small-screen version of his big-screen success (“30 Days”) and now, with his latest film, “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?,” he has made good use of his time by creating a film that is both a failed bit of political satire and a largely unfocused work that is more about him than anything else.The hook this time is that Spurlock is about to become a father and is suffering from that age-old worry about bringing an innocent child into such a dangerous world. One of the chief things making the world so dangerous, especially in the post-9/11 world, is the constant threat of terrorist attacks and the person who most readily represents that danger is, of course, Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader who has somehow managed to elude pursuers throughout the world despite ill health and a $25 million bounty on his head. With his child on the way, Spurlock decides to do what any self-aggrandizing documentarian trying to find a new subject might do--he decides to leave his partner behind in New York while taking his cameras across the world to look for the man himself. Along the way, you will no doubt be shocked to learn, he meets with various people and learns that they are not all monsters, that there is more common ground between us than one might think and that the aggressive foreign policy agenda being pushed forward by the Bush administration have not exactly endeared our country to the rest of the world.
Whether he find his quarry or not is something that I will leave for you to discover (though I would gently note that if he did indeed stumble upon bin Laden in the flesh, the film might be getting a somewhat larger publicity push than it is currently receiving). However, as he journeys from city to city, it quickly becomes apparent that Spurlock really has no idea about what kind of film he is trying to make. At times, he goes for the jokiness that suffused his previous film (including some insufferable animated sequences and a deeply annoying title song) and then he abruptly shifts gears in order to show us how shocked and heartbroken he is by man’s inhumanity to each other. (At one point, he gives us a guided tour of a schoolroom that was recently shelled after hours and responds to it in an overly emotional manner that suggest that he hasn’t been watching the news for the last couple of decades.) At other times, he tries to assume the role of journalist and while that might have yielded some acerbic commentary on the role of the media in regards to its depiction of the war, Spurlock has instead decided that he really is a journalist after all and plays it straight by asking his subjects the kind of embarrassingly trite softball questions that are designed solely to inspire the kinds of answers that he knows in advance that he wants to get from them.
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think of one of the more underrated films to come along in recent years, Albert Brooks’ hilarious comedy “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” In that film, you will recall, Brooks (playing a thinly disguised version of himself) was sent off to India and Pakistan as part of a government-sponsored project to see what makes Muslims laugh--the idea being that if we know what they find amusing, it would allow us to get to know them better as a people and might perhaps lead to better relations between them and us. The joke, of course, is that Brooks was so self-absorbed--he was less concerned with finding out what made Muslims laugh than in trying to figure out why they didn’t find his material to be funny even though it largely dealt with specific comedy constructs and references that were often lost in the translation--that the entire mission quickly feel apart and nearly sparked an international incident. The difference between the two films, of course, is that Brooks’ film was about a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac involved in an international version of that old punch line “Enough about me--what do you think about me?” while Spurlock’s is by a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac etc. . . His jokes aren’t especially funny, his insights are almost insulting in their shallowness and there are some scenes that play so badly (including one where his ultra-orthodox Israeli neighborhood inspires angered reactions from the locals that nearly inspire a riot before police are called in to get him to safety) that you may find yourself wondering what could have compelled him to a.) stick around even after it became clear that his presence was going to result in nothing but trouble and b.) keep the footage in the film instead of consigning it to the cutting room floor.Two final observations. 1. “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” first became notorious when Spurlock showed fifteen minutes of selected footage to potential buyers at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, a top-secret move that fueled speculation that he indeed found bin Laden and sparked a bidding war that was ended when Harvey Weinstein snatched up the rights for a figure rumored to be as high as $25 million--probably a gross exaggeration but even half that figure would be an extraordinary amount for a documentary. I can only hope that when the DVD comes out, it includes some hidden camera footage of Weinstein’s immediate reaction when he saw the finished film for the first time and discovered exactly what he wound up paying for. 2. In my opening paragraph, you will recall that I compared Spurlock’s post-”Super Size Me” career to the awkward steps taken by Michael Moore in the years between “Roger & Me” and “Bowling for Columbine.” If this pattern holds, I guess this means that his next film will really be worth checking out--that is, of course, if anyone actually gives him money to make a next film after word of this stinker gets out.
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