If you listen to the Bush Administration, everyone in the Middle East wants to destroy America. It’s part of their freedom-hating, regressive religious birthright. On the other hand, the more ‘liberal’ minded in the media want to remind us that not all Muslims should be branded by Jihad’s bloody-sword seriousness. Upon the arrival of his first child, Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock decides to find out which side of the political situation the truth actually lies. In addition, he hopes to answer the titular question Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? by tracking down the infamous terrorist himself.
Thus begins an-ADD oriented tour of a half-dozen formative countries, our goofy-grinned guide making his way from Egypt and its well-protected (read: U.S.-supported) dictatorship to the head-in-the-sand shrillness of the fiercely fundamentalist kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the middle, Spurlock stops by Morocco, makes his way through Jordan, talks to war-torn villagers in Afghanistan, and discovers a possible location of America’s MOST wanted in the mountains of Pakistan. Throughout it all, we get a very Depeche Mode version of international relations — in essence, people are people.
It’s not a new idea, and Spurlock doesn’t act like he’s reinventing the wheel here. Instead, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is meant as a message to anyone who hears Dick Cheney and thinks that he literally speaks for the rest of the planet. These open and honest individuals, faces lined with a lifetime of defense of their dignity, make one thing very clear — they don’t hate Americans, just the American foreign policy. All issues of representative government aside, they make a compelling case. That Spurlock oversells it (there is a great deal of repetition in the Arab viewpoint) is not a surprise. That it seems like the first time we are really hearing it, legitimized like this, is a revelation.
It’s not all milk and honey for our host, however. He does run into a few reactionary radicals along the way. A relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers argues that his brother’s videotaped confession was part of an elaborate Hollywood F/X job, while a firebrand Imam argues that cruelty is the only way to respond to a violent, hate-filled Western strategy. In Israel, moderates are juxtaposed against a group of Hassidic Jews who literally threaten Spurlock’s life, and he does find a few positively pro Al-Qaeda voices along the way. But just like the filmmaker he mirrors, there’s a lot of Michael Moore in what Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is trying to accomplish. Sadly, Spurlock doesn’t have said Oscar winner’s anti-Establishment moxie.
He also doesn’t possess Moore’s gift for narrative. The middle hour is magnificent, as fascinating a portrait of the beleaguered region as you’re likely to see outside the Travel Channel. But the first and last ten minutes are tiring, the former focused on a short attention span overview of the entire region’s setup, the latter celebrating the standard cinema salve of human biology and birth. If there’s a moment that stands out among all the multicultural PC pronouncements, it’s when Spurlock stands at a precarious Pakistani border and wonders if he should cross. As the music swells and the voice-overpontificates, we anticipate something revelatory.
The actual decision, however, underlines the main issue with this otherwise absorbing film. As an investigator, Morgan Spurlock is more than happy to confront his subjects. But when it comes to actually taking a risk — literally or subjectively — he’s all bluster.
DVD extras include an alternate ending (no, he doesn’t find Osama), an animated history of Afghanistan, deleted interviews, and other extra footage.