Where in the World is Morgan Spurlock’s Brain?
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is looking for Osama Bin Laden. Is it more surprising that he doesn't find him — or that Spurlock's own biases make his film nearly unwatchable?
April 18, 2008 - 12:50 am
In the tech world, Moore’s Law says that more computing power will continue to be squeezed into a smaller space. At the cinema, Moore’s Law says that Michael Moore’s success will cause ambitious lefty filmmakers to squeeze more and more tendentious arguments, straw-man attacks, and tasteless jokes into each political documentary. In striving to be even more outrageous than his idol, Morgan Spurlock begins his inane documentary Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? by making light of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The film begins with queasy airplane footage in which the clouds largely obscure the city below. Knowing this is a documentary about the Age of Terror going into the film makes you nervous about where Spurlock is heading, but his narration seals the point. Spurlock talks about waking up on a perfect morning, glad to know you’re alive, when suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, everything changes.
Cut. Now we’re in Spurlock’s home, where his wife is telling him (in an obviously staged scene) that she’s pregnant.
This opening is not just childish, smug and unfunny; it’s a hideous affront to people who lost loved ones on those flights to compare their suffering to Spurlock’s supposed shock at finding out he was going to be a daddy. The difference is as stark as death and life, and Spurlock owes the 9/11 families an abject apology.
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, a supposed comedy that also features the Statue of Liberty pictured as a whore, finds Spurlock touring various places in the Arab world and Israel (Morocco, Egypt, the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and finally Afghanistan and Pakistan) while trying to convince you that Bin Laden, and Bin Ladenism, are no big deal, that our fears of terrorism are slightly ridiculous, and that if only we gave the Islamist world more health care, more education, and maybe a copy of It Takes a Village for every jihadist, we wouldn’t have to worry.
How does Spurlock make this point? By traveling around the Arab world to find scholars, journalists, and activists who believe this. In other words, in intellectual terms he travels the world and magically finds Brooklyn (where he lives). Every so often the film breaks for a little monologue by Spurlock about U.S. evils in which Bin Laden and his henchmen are portrayed as wacky cartoon characters. The film amounts to Al-Qaeda: the Cartoon.
The film, which is padded at the beginning with a silly training montage set to thumping action-movie music of Spurlock learning how to dodge grenades and survive being taken hostage, leads up to a conclusion in which, (again, Spurlock himself is the one who simply delivers the message) we are told, that the Arab people are just like us. There is a montage of smiling Muslims at the end. Surely anyone who smiles isn’t scary.
But the film itself contradicts this notion. Virtually all of Spurlock’s interview subjects veer between chatting about how much they like Americans to ugly and lunatic theories. Two cute, smiley girls Spurlock meets on an Egyptian street seem nice enough until they blurt out, “You want to occupy Egypt. It’s what we hear on TV and stuff.” Another Egyptian says, “We pray to God to destroy you.” A French-speaking woman activist tells him (emphasis mine), “If it really was Osama who did 9/11, he dealt us a bad hand.” (Translation: the CIA or the Jews probably did it).
In Saudi Arabia, when Spurlock gains access to a school, he is given permission to talk to exactly two students. When he asks them what they’ve been taught about Israel, the authorities order him to stop filming.
A relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers interviewed by Spurlock doesn’t believe the official story because “America wins all the Oscar awards” and presumably faked the whole thing.
And these are the people cherry-picked for their reasonableness.
In Israel and the West Bank, Spurlock affects befuddlement that people would choose to build barricades to keep out suicide bombers (“Everywhere you go there’s a wall, there’s a fence, there’s barbed wire”). In Morocco, Spurlock talks about a 2003 bombing and takes us to the shantytown from which the bombers sprang, finding a local intellectual to say that the most important ingredients in breeding terrorism are poverty and lack of education. Spurlock does not mention the obvious retort — that the 9/11 bombers were educated upper-middle class men — but makes it clear that if only the United States would eliminate all poverty from the world, terrorism would evaporate. And the Iraq invasion was too ambitious?
Like most liberals, Spurlock can’t figure out a way to maneuver in the Arab world without soiling the pure, unspoiled ideals of which he never tires of reminding us. In a particularly smug animated sequence in which the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a stripper/whore and Spurlock says the US has been “pimping out liberty,” he accuses the country of routinely propping up dictatorial regimes in the name of stability. That position puts him on both sides of the Iraq debate. He is against America’s decades-long bipartisan policy of supporting the relatively nonthreatening Mubarak regime in Egypt while trying to gently nudge it along to democracy, but in opposing the current war he implicitly says that that should have been our policy in Iraq. So Hosni Mubarak is evil, but Saddam Hussein was okay.
For a movie with nearly a dozen credited writers, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? offers surprisingly strained attempts at humor. When it isn’t in bad taste, it is simply weak. For instance, Spurlock sits down with a phone book in Riyadh and starts randomly calling Bin Ladens, walks through a shopping mall in Saudi Arabia asking people whether they’ve seen Osama and, in Tora Bora, walks around shouting “Yoo-hoo! Osama!” into caves. Spurlock, who back in New York City lives in the crosshairs of radical Islam, has unintentionally proven that there is nothing particularly funny about the terrorist threat.
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
1 star out of 4
Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com.