A Documentarian In Search of a Terrorist Mastermind (and a Thesis Statement)

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is Morgan Spurlock’s follow up to Supersize Me. It first came out  back in April, and I meant to see it at the time but I think I was too busy shaking with pre-exam anxiety to get out to the theaters. It just opened here in Australia, so I thought I’d take the second chance to see it on the big screen. I do love documentaries.  Generally, I like Morgan Spurlock. I enjoyed both his previous feature and his FX series 30 Days, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into when I bought my ticket.

The conceit of this latest documentary is that Spurlock’s partner is pregnant, and his impending paternity inspires him to make the world a safer place for his child. In order to accomplish this, he sets out to find the most dangerous man in the world: Osama bin Laden. It’s pretty thin as inciting incidents go, but Spurlock plays it straight by focusing more on his travels than his actual goal. In order to find the Al-Quaeda mastermind, Spurlock traces a path through the Middle Eastern world.

This is the core of the film. He starts in Egypt, and his quest takes him to Isreal, Suadi Arabia, Afghanistan, and finally to Pakistan. The destinations are set up with interstitial animations that look like the pre-level cut-scenes froma video game. Indeed, after Spurlock establishes his goal, there’s a mildly amusing videogame sequence where he fights a CG avatar of Bin Laden, utilizing special moves like the “Redneck Rage” and the “Mustache Ride.” Heh.

Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock

The animated aside to explain or illustrate a point is a common Spurlockian trope, which he actually uses less than I was expecting. The bulk of the picture consists of Spurlock visiting different locales and talking to the locals. He starts by asking them if they know where bin Laden is, which usually elicits a laugh. Then he goes on to interview the subjects on what they think of American foreign policy.

As much as I like Spurlock, his work does tend to suffer from what I like to call the “No shit?” factor. Supersize me and most episodes of 30 Days offer a useful look at some aspect of American culture, but obviousness of the positions undercuts the point that Spurlock makes. For example: Supersize Me.

“Really? Eating nothing but McDonald’s for a month straight is bad forr you and fattens your ass while clogging your arteries? No shit. I had no idea.”

Or the episode of 30 Days where he and his partner decided to live on minimum wage for the eponymous time period. His earth-shattering conclusion: living on $5.50 an hour is really hard, almost impossible in the modern economy. Stop the presses!

What makes his work worthwhile is the way he uses these stunts to explore the edges of the issue. Supersize Me touched on the way the food industry as a whole works, and the ways in which agribusiness has affected the American diet. In the minimum wage episode of 30 Days, he explored the deeper economic forces behind income inequality. The “No Shit?” Factor is a tool he uses to flesh out his theses.

At least that is the way it usually works. I was a little disappointed by Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?preciesly because Spurlock wasn’t pursuing a specific point of view. If he had a thesis, it would have to be that many citizens and average people in the Middle East are critical of the way America pursues its interests on the world stage. Welll, there’s your “No shit?” moment, but the incidental details are absent this time around. There were fewer graphs and asides that articulated subtleties. There wasn’t much in the way o sutblety at all. Instead, Spurlock opted to usethe human element.

The weight of the film comes from the earnestness with which his interview subjects articulate their thoughts and fears. There’s more of an emotional punch, but less overall depth. His focus is on the everyday citizens (when he can get to talk with them openly. There is an extended sequence where he is run out of an Israeli neghborhood by some very angry Hasidic dudes, and one where his interview with some Saudi youths is carefully overseen by some officials, who the boys keep looking at as they answer). He speaks with everyone from radical clerics to University students and poor farmers. He covers all his bases. To his credit, the film never devolves into blatant America-bashing. There are moments when the repeated refrain of “I have nothing against the American people, but their government is a real problem” gets old. Spurlock could also do more to present the view of the American foreign policy establishment. If for no other reason than for valid contrast. But he keeps it at the man on the street level.

He doesn’t really offer any grand conclusions, aside from the fact that men like Osama bin Laden don’t just spring fully formed from some malevolent spring of pure evil. They are created by their times and shaped by the religious, social, and economic forces of the world in which they live. Understanding this is important, to be sure. But I can’t help but feel that Spurlock is better when he has a clearer axe to grind and a more specific enemy to assault. American hegemony is too broad and the social factors he examines to varied. He needs someone even more evil to go up against. Like McDonald’s. The film is interesting and Spurlock is an engaging presence, but his point would have been stronger with a clearer purpose. As it is, it serves as a fine survey. But in order to reveal more, he needs a more clearly articulated thesis.

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