Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Review
Morgan Spurlock’s follow-up film to his massive hit Super Size Me is an extremely irritating and at times mystifying film. At its heart is the odd dichotomy of a hopefully unintentional condescending tone with a central thesis that is almost wilfully trivial, showing a lack of insight into its subject matter so profound that the whole project comes across as an extended exercise in vacuousness. The film’s conclusion, that no matter what the colour of their skin most people are generally decent sorts, is perhaps the most trite ever uttered in an apparently serious documentary but no better is the superficial approach Spurlock takes to some of the world’s most serious issues.
But then this film isn’t really aimed at the likes of me nor, I would hazard to guess, most people reading this review. Instead, it is geared primarily at that thirty percent of Americans who still believe that George W is doing a heckuva job, and as such any message to them must apparently be couched in simple, easy-to-understand terms. The film’s arc is explicitly that of a Neocon gradually seeing the light and starts with Spurlock, playing the archetypal Republican, preparing to sally forth to Afarawayastan to find Osama and thus make life safer for his soon-to-be born child, just as countless other of his countrymen have gone before him. We see him preparing for the journey by undergoing some combat training with a gung-ho army instructor but, hey, you know what he finds when he does finally get overseas? That actually most people in these weird sandy places don’t want to kill him at all, but simply want to be left alone to get on with their lives! Indeed, he discovers that arms aren’t perhaps the best solution to America’s problems, that maybe in fact the US has brought its problems on itself through hypocritical and ultimately self-defeating policies and that if only we saw things from the perspective of the Not-Wes then we’d all get along much much better. He ends the film in Afghanistan a reformed character, having realised that to make the world safer for his son he doesn’t need to hunt down the bogeyman that is Osama bin Laden but simply to reach out a hand across the ocean and make peace with those not-so-different to himself and to stop being so unilateral about everything. Well, who’d have thunk it?
It must be nice to see things in such simple black-and-white terms. In the real world, of course, things are far more complicated but engaging with the issues on anything other than a superficial level is something Spurlock doesn‘t seem interested in doing. He travels through some of the most contentious areas of the Middle East, from Israel and Palestine through Saudi Arabia (noticeably not Iraq though) and then on to some of the trouble spots of Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, trying to draw a linear link between these disparate places as to the root cause of the world’s problems. Such a single link, of course, does not exist, and his early attempts to blame America for supporting assorted dictators in the region as a primary cause is neither hardly revolutionary in its viewpoint nor coming close to painting a complete picture - exactly why said leaders were given the support they were, for example, is never properly examined. This lack of depth in argument is at its worse in the Israel/Palestine segment - I’m sure many on both sides of that conflict would be fascinated to hear that if only everyone would stop making a fuss the solution to the situation is self-evident. At times Spurlock displays a lack of intellectual curiosity worthy of Mr Bush himself, accepting things at face value without digging further - during his visit to Saudi Arabia we see the effects of Wahhabism but at no point is what that particular subset of Islam is actually about, or why it has exerted such a force over that region, explored. Instead, Spurlock is content to go round and have a nice chat with various people in each region, not always as representative as they are made out to be of their nationalities, and while it’s all very genial it’s hardly at the front rank of investigative journalism. These are subjects which demand far greater engagement than they are given here, and a far more three-dimensional approach.
Of course Super Size Me had a similarly simple (albeit far more justifiable) premise, but he got away with it by making a genuinely entertaining and amusing documentary. This time he hasn’t - not only is there little argument, there’s not much entertainment either. Even in a lesser work by Michael Moore like Sicko that agent provocateur provides some amusing set pieces and peoples the film with memorable characters, but unfortunately Spurlock doesn’t find any characters, and only one notable scene, in which he gets into a spot of local difficulty in Israel. To lighten up the rest of the film he relies on shots of him dressed in local garb or animated sequences which lack inspiration - the opening sequence of Spurlock vs. Osama in a Mortal Kombat-style smack down, is a good example.
Ultimately, and given I don’t think Spurlock is either as stupid or as patronising as this film makes him out to be, I have a suspicion about why the movie went so wrong. Sitting down to plan his next movie, it’s understandable and even commendable that after the open goal target of McDonalds he would wish to try and sink his teeth into something more meaty (no pun intended) and what could fit the bill better than the current tension between the West and fundamental Islam? Having decided on his target, he then will have come up with the catchy name, and at that point things will have looked rather promising. However, having got so far it would appear he struck a blank wall and didn’t really know what to say about the situation, so decided to hell with it, he’d just set off on his quest and hopefully pick up some insight along the way. Unfortunately this he singularly failed to do and, coming home, ended up having to scrabble round with the material he had, resulting in the embarrassingly twee conclusion with which the film ends. His discoveries along the way, such as that much of the world is pissed at the US, aren’t news to anyone who has turned on the television in the last few years, while the irritating crow-barring in of his baby’s prenatal development are utter indulgence, as well as a lack of self-confidence in the rest of his film.
That is the only charitable explanation. The alternative, that he has such a contempt for his fellow Americans that he believes a stupid film like this would help the debate back home, is hardly worth thinking about. Those thirty percent are not going to be swayed by the flimsy account of world affairs offered here, while anyone with even a modicum of common sense will be too annoyed to focus on the odd interesting interview he picks up along the way. Surely a case of poor planning, this is still a major disappointment.
The film is presented on a reasonably good DVD. Before getting to the menus there are three trailers to bypass, for Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko and Brian de Palma's Redacted. The disc's menus are lively and well designed, although if the jaunty iconography of the feature exasperated you it's probably better to look away. The Video is surprisingly soft at times, and detail is not all it should be, making for a not especially good-looking transfer. On the other hand, there's a generous two Audio tracks, one 2.0 and one 5.1, although admittedly this latter doesn't bring a huge amount of aural enhancement to the film's viewing experience. The one let down on the presentation side, though, is the lack of any subtitles on either the main feature or the extra features.
As said, the major bonus Extra for R2 is an extra not found on the R1, the Morgan Spurlock Interview (26:26). And pretty good it is too, arguably better than the main feature, and while it confirms some suspicions I had about the film (he was making it up as he went along!) it's also insightful - Spurlock, as he proved when doing his publicity tour for the movie earlier this year, is an interesting engaging guy, which makes the rotten film he's just made all the more regrettable. Among the seven Deleted Scenes (17:48) too are a couple of interviews, with Shimon Peres and the Saudi women, which would have benefited the film, although there are also a couple more trite animations which rightly belonged on the cutting room floor. Rounding the small but decent collection of bonus material off is the Theatrical Trailer (1:53) which does what all good trailers should and make the film look significantly better than it is.
The quote used on the DVD sleeve - "Puts the fun in fundamentalist!" (Loaded) - is not a bad summary of the vapid content within. That said, the DVD itself is fine, although the lack of subtitles lets the side down.
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