When the Weinstein Company bought Morgan “Supersize Me” Spurlock’s new documentary, Where In the World is Osama bin Laden? after only having seen ten minutes of footage, speculation ran rampant as to what was in those ten minutes. Had Spurlock actually done what the US intelligence agencies could not do and found the head of Al Qaeda?
The short answer is no, and the long answer is that he doesn’t even actually try. The film is a weird mixture of extraordinarily basic information about US foreign policy in the Middle East, man on the street interviews and Spurlock’s own navel-gazing about the impending birth of his first child. It’s his wife’s pregnancy that ostensibly sends him on his quest; the world is a dangerous place, and if Spurlock can locate Osama perhaps he can make it a touch less dangerous for the kid.
The movie’s funny, but it’s only informative if you haven’t been paying a bit of attention over the last seven years. Spurlock’s examination of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is so cursory that I’ve seen it looked at with more depth in comic books, and the same goes for most of the movie. Spurlock travels around the Middle East, interviewing people on the streets and coming to the conclusions that not every Muslim wants to kill you and that we’re all just people and can’t we figure out a way to get along, man? The movie opens with a clever bit of animation pitting Spurlock against Osama as if in a fighting game, but once that’s over the title character sort of fades away and the film settles into a sixth grade geopolitics lesson.
Why doesn’t Spurlock cover anything interesting, or even remotely fresh? The battle at Tora Bora, where Osama disappeared from view, is mentioned and Spurlock goes to the location, but instead of trying to find out why the military wouldn’t commit enough troops to the battle or why the US intelligence complex is completely unable to find this guy, Spurlock shouts Osama’s name into a cave. It’s frustrating to see Spurlock completely avoid the film’s own central topic.
I laughed a lot during Where In the World Is Osama bin Laden?, and Spurlock is an amiable figure to follow, but I wish that we followed him somewhere interesting. This movie is more of an essay than what most people would expect from a straight documentary; I don’t have a problem with that, just with the simplicity of the thesis. In the end the whole thing boils down to being more about Spurlock than about Osama, which is similar to complaints many people had about Supersize Me – although in that case I felt the focus on Spurlock, who was using himself as a guinea pig, was deserved. Here, though, it’s unsettling; we’re watching Spurlock’s ‘voyage of discovery’ where he sees that US foreign policy has made America unpopular overseas. I find it hard to believe that this is a revelation to a guy as smart as Spurlock, which makes the whole movie feel vaguely condescending, like he’s pretending to learn it so that you dummies in the audience don’t feel so bad about just having learned it.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with even a marginal amount of knowledge about the Middle East and the War on Terror not being at least a little bit disappointed with this film. There were so many places Spurlock could have taken his movie, and even if he never intended to put himself into truly dangerous situations (and why would anyone expect that he actually would?), hr could have put himself into places that might have actually deepened the audience’s understanding of bin Laden and why he’s still out there somewhere.