Monday, April 21, 2008
Morgan Spurlock says he's watched a lot of movies in his lifetime and if he's learned one thing from all those action flicks, it's that a lone American can save the world. Forget the fact that the CIA, the FBI and the U.S. military have all failed to find the world's most wanted man. After taking on the McDonald's franchise, Spurlock now feels he's ready to take on Al Qaeda.. But wait... first he needs to take some self-defense classes, get vaccinated for all sorts of diseases, and figure out a travel schedule that will take him all over the Middle East. Spurlock also wants to learn where Bin Laden came from, and the environment and influences that shaped him into who and what he is today.
Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? begins as if it were a mockumentary. There's a goofy animated sequence showing Spurlock reacting to the idea of being a new father and then video game graphics pairing Spurlock (energized by "redneck power") taking on Osama. Terrorism is a serious subject but I was willing to give Spurlock a chance to show me that he could tackle an important issue with humor and make it work. So the comic approach of the open proved amusing and a potentially good set up for Spurlock's journey to find the Al Qaeda leader.
The problem is that Spurlock shoots himself in the foot. He doesn't realize what's good in his film and what's not. The good involves footage with a wide variety of people in the Middle East from men and women on the street to journalists, and scholars. By providing a view of the Middle East that the U.S. media tends to avoid and by allowing average people to reveal how they see the U.S., Spurlock creates a fascinating and sometimes eye-opening documentary. One person in Egypt explains that they fear the U.S. goal is ultimately to invade Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, Spurlock stands in the town square where people are executed and then visits a school where the interview with two handpicked teens is cut short when he asks for the students' opinions. Spurlock is also invited into many homes by total strangers who embrace him and the opportunity to speak out.
But all these effective moments are constantly undercut by Spurlock's need to be funny. Spurlock strives to be a kinder and gentler Michael Moore with Moore's Roger and Me (in which Moore sets off in search of GM CEO Roger Smith) serving as a rough template for Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? Both films let the filmmakers become a central character in their documentaries as they head out on personal quests for individuals that are distinctly out of reach. They both paint themselves as Davids taking on Goliaths. And both use comedy to make their messages easier to go down; both strive to entertain first in the hopes that enlightenment will come later. Moore - whether you agree with his politics or not - is the better filmmaker and manages the mix of comedy and commentary to better effect that Spurlock.
When Spurlock made Super Size Me, he had far more leeway in making jokes and being silly. For one, McDonald's is a huge corporation that never runs the risk of seeming pathetic, and for another, Spurlock himself was often the butt of the jokes. But in Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? , Spurlock cracks wise and it often seems entirely out of place. This misplaced comedy creates a serious disconnect with the strong footage he collects of people. Take a scene where he has been talking with poverty-stricken people in Afghanistan, people who have been exhausted by war for some three decades. He remarks that they gather nuts that help keep them awake, and then jokes that he better not interrupt them as they play with their nuts... I had to pause for a moment to re-consider just how stupid and unnecessary that was.
Spurlock doesn't seem to have faith in the fact that he could make a straight-faced documentary. Go ahead and use the jokey Where's Waldo set up but once he hits the road he should have just had confidence that the footage he gathered would hold our interest. The press notes state that Spurlock "goes beyond shedding light on the one man that has shaped the world's perception of a region and its people. Spurlock risks life and limb to uncover the truth about bin Laden, and in doing so explores the lines that divide, those that unite, and the countless shades of grey between." And you know what, he almost does this and he could have done this if he were just a better and more mature filmmaker. I think the material is actually there to a large degree but Spurlock doesn't know how to present it without making it part of his comedy routine. He's like a little kid who can only behave for so long and then has to act out.
Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (rated PG-13 for some strong language) is a wildly erratic documentary. It has moments of being entertaining, moments when it actually touches your heart, but in the end you are mostly left confused by the film's tone. Spurlock seems to respect the common folk that he interviews yet his constant need to undercut that respect with gags creates discomfort. So in some ways I want to urge people to avoid this film yet there is quite a lot that I admired and would like people to see. So this is a film that left me torn. It also left me frustrated that a better film was not made from the material gathered because Spurlock and his crew did travel extensively through dangerous countries to shoot considerable and often quietly impressive footage. Aaargh! That's annoying.
Companion viewing: Super Size Me, Roger and Me, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World