Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Morgan Spurlock gained his fame - and a ton of fat - in "Supersize Me," the often amusing documentary that showed the dangers of a fast food "diet." Spurlock sacrificed his waistline so that we might hesitate to ask for fries with that. So searching for the bearded fiend who wants to put all infidels' heads on a pike is another, much more dangerously permanent matter. In his latest film, "Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden?" Spurlock amps up the danger quotient by attempting to locate America's Public Enemy No.1. Last time I checked, being beheaded with a dull scimitar is a far more dangerous prospect than a Big Mac attack.
The film is billed as a comedy, but there are few belly dancing laughs. You'll definitely shake your head in disbelief, grimace, be temporarily amused, maybe even wish a few undesirables dead, but laugh? Uh-uh. Nevertheless, Spurlock's journey is one we all need to take. If you're one of those smug war hawks who drives around with your American flag decal on your bumper flipping the bird to foreigners, pining for the day we turn the Middle East into a parking lot, then Spurlock's documentary is sho' nuff gonna flatten the tires on your pick up truck. If you're convinced there are a lot of folks living in paralyzing poverty who hate the U.S., well, you probably need to double your estimate of how many there really are. The good news is they don't necessarily hate Americans - they just hate our buttinski government. What's really surprising is the number of people who are ambivalent toward America. No, the world doesn't revolve around you, George W. There are bigger concerns in the Middle East, especially for villagers with no drinking water who send their children to a bullet-riddled school with no roof or walls.
Our intrepid filmmaker's search for Osama coincides with exciting, life-changing news -- Spurlock and his wife are going to have their first child. But Spurlock's Middle East odyssey could very well keep him from being by his wife's side when their baby is born.
Bringing a child into the post 9-11 world changes Spurlock's agenda. He wants to see Osama grovel in an American court, but he's also concerned for his child's safety in a die-Yankee-dog world.
Spurlock begins his journey by getting a battery of shots. (I stopped taking notes after the tenth one. Spurlock stopped acting smug when he was told there was a one in a thousand chance that the vaccination for Yellow Fever could cause "Multi-system failure."). He goes through the motions of learning self-defense and how to roll away from an exploding hand grenade. Spurlock also takes a course on how to survive being held hostage and learns a smattering of languages, which culminates in his asking, "How do you say don't take me, take the cameraman?"
Spurlock's search for Osama begins in Cairo, before taking him to Morocco, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and finally, Pakistan. He quickly discovers that any mention of Osama spurs talk about religion, government (either the corrupt or oppressive kind), poverty, lack of education, and America's intent to dominate the world. In Cairo, Spurlock's lawyer friend gets a chuckle out of his use of the catch phrase "The war on terror."
Lawyer: It's a bogus phrase. Someone at the Pentagon who had too much to drink one night came up with it.
Spurlock: We had a war on drugs and we didn't win that either.
By the time Spurlock completes his odyssey, he's a changed man. My take on Spurlock is like a lot of Americans he traveled to the Middle East thinking it was populated by fanatics and simpletons, convinced that the U.S. armed forces could roll through it in a fortnight (something we're still waiting for them to do). The tenacity of the people he interviews, their dedication to their religious beliefs and their well earned cynicism toward their own government amazes and frustrates Spurlock. Confronted by a group of angry Hassids in Israel, Spurlock is confounded when he's greeted with a chorus of "Get the hell out of here" after asking them for an interview. If he didn't already suspect that some of our allies could be as volatile as our enemies, then this ugly encounter with men who are supposed to be pious proponents of peace drives the notion home. Yet there are many others who seem to have come to grips with the war between Israel and Palestine, as well as the ramifications of having someone like Bin Laden on the loose. A student in Tel Aviv aptly sums up the situation, equating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to musical chairs: "Somebody is going to be left without a chair. But everybody needs to sit somewhere." And Israeli journalist Yair Lapid adds his own candid assessment: "We are not holding the terrorists. They are holding us. Everybody knows how it will end. But what we don't know is how many people are going to die." As Spurlock discovers, trying to pick a side can get very confusing - there are just as many right and wrong opinions among those who support Israel as there are among the Palestinians' backers.
Our American Odysseus is particularly baffled by the lack of personal freedoms in Saudi Arabia. Anyone who opposes the government stands a good chance of being beheaded for the crowd's amusement in Chop-Chop Square. Picking up a magazine, he notes that a brassiere ad has been censored, that a shot of Posh Spice's shoulder has been covered up, and a photo of model wearing her skirt above her knee is blacked out. "Can't I police my own thoughts?" Spurlock asks the newspaper vendor. "No," he replies. When Spurlock attempts to interview two students under the watchful eyes of the principal and their teacher, his question asking how they feel about the U.S. draws a bumbling response from one student who quickly retracts his answer, while the second boy goes mute. The response to his next question about Israel underscores the differences in U.S. and Egyptian culture.
One Spurlock's shortest, but most informative interview is with holy man Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Sweilen of Saudi Arabia. Al Sweilen has the ratty smile of a confidence man, the laser stare of Rasputin, and the rapier responses of someone who could be considered a dangerous fanatic. (He's the Saudi Al Swearengin!) When Spurlock suggests the U.S. entered Afghanistan seeking peace, Al Sweilen quickly responds, "You went there with an ambulance or a tank?" And you'll just love Big Al's pep talk/sermon asking God to make Iraq a graveyard for Christians and other enemies of Islam.
The closer Spurlock gets to Bin Laden's last known whereabouts, the more desperate life gets for the locals. He goes to Tora Bora in Afghanistan, the last place Bin Laden was seen, and is genuinely taken aback at the countries impoverished conditions: "Wherever you go, there are people with guns, barbed wire, check points, and more people with guns." A school that was supposed to be rebuilt two years ago by the U.S, "Looks like a bomb went off in it yesterday." Yet, despite the fetid mud, lack of drinking water (the U.S. Army built a well that sapped the town's water supply) and skeletal buildings, the Mayor has decided the best thing for Tora Bora would be to turn it into an amusement park (seriously!). Recognizing a straight line, Spurlock offers him an advertising slogan: "You could say Tora Bora, it's the bomb."
The reality of the state of Afghanistan is summed up in Spurlock's encounter with a gentle looking bearded old man who appears to be living like a troll under a bridge:
Spurlock: Have you seen Osama Bin Laden?
Old man: Who?
Spurlock: Osama Bin Laden. He destroyed those buildings in America.
Old man: f**K him. And f**k America too.
Spurlock's journey ends in Pakistan, where Osama is supposedly hiding in a cave condo. (Many of the Pakistanis he interviews suggest he's still hiding in Afghanistan.) As Spurlock stands at the outskirts of Peshawar, he takes a moment to reflect upon his search for Bin Laden and the impending birth of his child: "They say when you go looking for trouble, you'll find it. I'm just looking for answers and I think I found a lot on this trip...I found out there are a lot more people out there who are just like us, than there are just like him."
A Little Osama on the Side...The Extras
"Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden" is bin laden with a half dozen extras. The first is an alternate ending, an animated Wild West showdown between our hero and the villainous, gunslinging Osama gang. Another animated segment, "Afgan Animation," sprightly spoofs action hero movies. The rest of the features are interviews that were cut from the film. In the case of I.R.A. hero/fanatic Martin McGuiness (depending on your point of view), his spotlight was likely cut because his part of the storyline doesn't take place in the Middle East. McGuiness makes a number of pertinent points, and his friendly Barry Fitzgerald brogue disguises the fact he's tougher than a shot of Irish Whiskey.
Spurlock's decision to cut the "Watergate" segment, in which Mike Shyer meets him in an abandoned parking lot to divulge sensitive covert operations, was a brilliant decision. Shyer is such a bad actor it's apparent from his first bug-eyed opening line that this is a badly scripted spoof, not a real interview. Putting this stiff lampoon in the film would have cast doubt on the authenticity of the other interviews, and Shyer gets my vote for the Nicholas Cage Stinko Actor of the Year Award.
Saah Ibraham's is a polar opposite - erudite, informative and serious as scorpion bite. The Egyptian civil rights activist spent three years in jail for criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But the gem of the extras is "Three Girls Saudi," with additional footage of a trio of Arabia women interviewed for the movie. The ladies comments on their society's lack of liberal belief gush out like WD40 from an oil well. You can tell by their eagerness that they're seldom asked for their opinions. One can only hope they didn't become part of the afternoon matinee in Chop-Chop Square because of their candidness.
"Where In the World Is Osama Bin Laden" is worth searching out at your local video mosque. Spurlock's search may not change your mind about Osama Bin Laden or the Middle East, but it'll remind you there equally important everyday issues we all have to deal with.