The light-hearted Morgan Spurlock documentary, “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” is very much a product of the Bush era. Completed a year ago, it played in theaters last spring and was released on DVD last fall. The film, which chronicles the travels of Spurlock as he journeys across the Middle East in search of the world’s most notorious terrorist, is clearly a reaction to the War on Terror policies of George W. Bush and a fair reflection of the Arab world’s mixed views of America.
But now, as a new President replaces the old and promises to reverse many of the previous administration’s policies, and as other countries cautiously consider changing their negative attitude toward America, dose Spurlock’s film still hold up? Has Obama rendered Spurlock’s film irrelevant? On the contrary, I believe his film holds even more power now, as we stand on the brink of fulfilling the promise of improving foreign relations. The film was great a year ago and I think it’s even more potent now.
As the somewhat humorous documentary begins, Spurlock, best known for his all-McDonald’s diet in “Super Size Me,” learns he is going to be a father. He’s driven by that parental urge to make the world safer for his child. So he sets out to capture public enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden, because, he says, “If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action movies, it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lone guy crazy enough to think he can fix everything before the final credits roll.”
Accompanied by some cute animation and video-game-style graphics, Spurlock sets off on a tour of the Middle East where he asks every person he meets if they know where Osama Bin Laden is hiding. He also asks some more poignant questions about their opinions on the War on Terrorism.
After completing a somewhat ridiculous survival training course, he travels to Egypt, Morocco, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and finally Pakistan. He adopts a somewhat naïve but pleasant persona and engages professors, clergymen, experts, relatives of terrorists, and, most importantly, the people on the street, to find out what they think of America and her policies. Although he does encounter some seething anti-American sentiments, the vast majority of Arabs whom he speaks to are very friendly and say they harbor no ill feelings toward the American people; they just resent the imperial foreign policies of the US government and how they continually prop up dictators throughout the Middle East. (Spurlock then explains, through funny cartoons, how and why the US supports certain despots. “Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we decided that in order to protect our freedom, it was okay to sacrifice the freedom of others.”)
Spurlock witnesses some very serious things, including a rocket launched by Hamas into an Israeli school, a bomb-squad blow up a suspicious package on a street in Tel-Aviv, and “Chop Chop Square” in Saudi Arabia where violators of religious law are executed. But he also interjects a lot of humor along the way. In Tora Bora, Afghanistan, where he searches caves for Osama, he learns of the mayor’s plan to build an amusement park. Spurlock suggests that the advertising slogan could be “Tora Bora: It’s the Bomb!”
Spurlock’s presentation of the Middle Eastern conflicts is a bit simplistic, especially compared to many other more serious docs about the War on Terror which have come out over the last several years. In fact, there’s very little in this film that will come as enlightening to anyone who has been paying close attention to the news and listening to meaningful political analyses on NPR. When “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” was released last year, Spurlock took a bad critical hit for that.
But what these ivory-tower critics failed to recognize was that the film made no pretense to serious analysis. Instead, the film tried to rise above socio-political-economic differences to focus instead on what unites us and ties us together as human beings, despite cultural differences.
Or, to put it more succinctly, it’s not what’s said but how it’s said. The charm of this film comes in the revelation of style. It’s about Spurlock’s persona and his individual interaction with people whom his government has told him are “evil-doers.” If he can sit down in their homes and talk to them one-on-one, then there is much hope for change.
Which brings us right back to the original question. While motivated by Bush’s world, the film, I believe, is a transition to Obama’s world. Of course, it’s too soon to know how different things will be under Obama, but right now there’s an awful lot of hope and potential. This film reflects that. It may have been made over a year ago but I think, at least in some ways, it means even more now than it did then.
So check it out. … Again.