Friday, April 25, 2008

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? -- Fool's quest?

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? (2008) • View trailer for Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.25.08
Buy DVD: Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?

During World War II, the beloved Warner Bros. cartoon characters joined the propaganda effort in a series of wincingly hilarious shorts that were so caustic and racist that they tend to be repressed in these more enlightened times.
No matter how dire their circumstances, most of the people encountered by
Morgan Spurlock, far right, insist on sharing a meal while chatting about their
lives and hopes — and their view of terrorists who cite religious convictions.

Back then, though, cartoons such as Confessions of a Nutzy Spy, Tokio Jokio and (ouch) Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips served a legitimate purpose: They belittled — and therefore cut down to size — an essentially faceless enemy that had, in the minds of frightened Americans, become larger than life.

Puncture the bully's balloon, and suddenly he's not so ferocious.

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, fresh from his impressive battle with the fast food industry in Super Size Me, now has set his sights on the world's most notorious terrorist, in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? Spurlock's intentions are good, but the results are uneven at best.

The lessons also aren't as eye-opening; it's hard to forget the striking image of all those bags of sugar, which represented Spurlock's intake of the sweet stuff during a month of binge-burgering. No single scene in this new film resonates as well.

Since the events of Super Size Me, the filmmaker has married then-girlfriend Alex, the counter-culture vegan who played such an important role during Morgan's month-long ordeal with burgers, fries and soft drinks.

Alex's developing pregnancy is just as crucial a part of Where in the World as her husband's journey of discovery about Bin Laden, which takes him to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, Morocco and Jordan.

His film's title notwithstanding, Spurlock hasn't any more expectation of actually finding Bin Laden than Michael Moore had of obtaining an audience with General Motors chairman Roger Smith, in 1989's Roger & Me. The point is the trip itself, and the people encountered along the way.

Spurlock also skewers U.S. arrogance, although generally with the sort of wink and nod that makes such an attitude more palatable.

"If I've learned anything from more than 30 years of movie-watching," he says, prior to embarking on his journey, "it's that if the world needs saving, it's best done by one lonely guy, willing to face danger head-on, and take it down, action-hero style."

Spurlock knows what we think of Bin Laden and al-Qaida; he wants to learn what families, journalists, rug merchants and other everyday civilians think of the terrorist in the countries that birthed, shaped and continue to nurture him and his followers.

Some of the results are naive and simplistic; others smack of selective editing. Given the mountain of footage from which to assemble his movie, Spurlock and editors Gavin Coleman and Julie "Bob" Lombardi emphasize interviews that play to our obvious desires: that those who truly follow Islamic teachings never could condone suicide bombings and other acts of violence; and that these average folks in other lands admire American people, and reserve their hatred for the American government (a popular refrain).

On the other hand, the camera catches some unscripted moments that feel authentic: the disquieting silence of a recently bombed school; the speed with which an arranged interview with two "typical" Saudi schoolboys is terminated when one question upsets the "handlers"; and most particularly the blind rage of the men in one extremist Israeli neighborhood — people Spurlock clearly expected would respond more favorably to his presence — who become so agitated that they turn physically violent and must be restrained by police officers.

The latter sequence demonstrates quite effectively that al-Qaida followers don't have a lock on hateful fanaticism.

A few of the conclusions raised also ring disturbingly true, both historically and in the context of recent events. The U.S. tendency to prop up truly horrible despots, as long as they toe the line on key elements of American foreign policy (such as rooting out Communism), goes back generations to — for example — Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, about whom President Franklin Delano Roosevelt supposedly said, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch!"

It should be noted, despite Spurlock and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick repeating that quote verbatim in their film, that no firm evidence ties FDR to that remark ... or, indeed, that the comment referenced Somoza as opposed to Rafael Trujillo (the Dominican Republic), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) or any number of other dictators kept alive and in power by a long and cash-laden American leash.

And that's the point: The United States has a long history of such meddling, and we haven't exactly been clandestine about it. How, then, can we be surprised if street-level people around the world regard American "involvement" with mistrust?

That leads quite persuasively to another point raised during one of Spurlock's many interviews: the unsettling notion that Bin Laden, savvy enough to recognize that he could not engage his enemy (the United States) on our soil, orchestrated an act — the destruction of the twin towers — that would make us engage him on his soil, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq.

At this point, given our tendency toward overkill, al- Qaida would be primed to recruit an ever-expanding legion of disenfranchised individuals enraged by our invasive presence.

The blend of interviews and animated educational bites isn't quite as successful as it was in Super Size Me; the topic here is both too large and too grim. While Spurlock can be congratulated for carefully navigating a fine line of breezy charm and sensitivity, whether in front of or behind the camera, his attempts at jovial good humor sometimes wear thin.

Fast food empires, their heart-attack menus notwithstanding, don't maim children or behead those who disagree with them.

The film's most effective exchanges are the most spontaneous: conversations with average folks in these various countries, generally while sharing a meal, where their desires are revealed to be no different than ours. They want food, homes, stable jobs, good health care and a safe environment in which to raise families.

The Osama bin Ladens of this world are a threat to such desires, whether in Egypt or the United States. Indeed, terrorists these days are capriciously willing to kill their own countrymen ... a change of attitude that has been noticed by many who chat with Spurlock.

But my favorite part of his film?

The montage that unspools during the closing credits, as we once again meet many of the people we've seen earlier: framed in a simple head shot, staring into the camera until something — an unheard remark, of perhaps just a request to "loosen up" — prompts a smile. Dozens and dozens of spontaneous, clearly friendly smiles.

His initial concerns not-withstanding, Spurlock found many, many welcoming people during his travels. And if they can forgive us our war-mongers, it seems only reasonable that we should forgive them their terrorists.

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