Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (review)

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Wanted… or Not

Here’s the thing: If the mainstream media isn’t gonna do its job in speaking truth to power, someone else is gonna do it. And yeah, it might be that guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month. It might be someone who’s aggressive and snarky and maybe a bit of jerk sometimes and makes it all seem like a joke.
But it’s not a joke, Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, even though it features animation of the (supposedly) most wanted man in the world breakdancing, and baseball-card stats for notorious terrorists, and a Star Wars reference, and a video-game fantasy of hand-to-hand combat between Spurlock and bin Laden, and Schoolhouse Rock-esque cartoon lessons in the recent history of American foreign policy, and just about every other kind of hipster Gen X pop culture-fueled sarcasm you can imagine. Of course it’s outrageous: it’s supposed to be. But it’s way less outrageous than the idea that a six-foot-four Arab who needs regular dialysis could possibly have eluded both the military and intelligence apparatus of the planet’s only remaining superpower for seven years. Or that our leaders don’t seem to be too concerned about that.

So it’s funny, sure, this laudably audacious flick, but it’s coming from a place of pain and rage, as if the surface lightheartedness of it were merely a way to keep those darker feelings tamped down lest they become overwhelming. Spurlock gets deeply personal again, as he did in Super Size Me, prompted on his globetrotting mission to find bin Laden by the news of his wife’s pregnancy: he has the sudden urge to make the world a safer place for his child. It’s all self-deprecating too: “If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action movies,” Spurlock snarks at us as the movie opens, “it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lonely guy crazy enough to think he can fix everything before the final credits roll.” Of course he doesn’t think he can do any such thing. But Where is not about the finding the answer but about asking the question, and about wondering why more people aren’t asking it. It’s about mocking our leaders and despairing of them at the same time, about loving America and the promise it once held not only for Americans but for others around the world, and hating to see how that promise has been shattered by the very guardians of it.

Because in between all the goofiness — when he’s not looking up Osama bin Laden in the Riyadh phone book or just asking passersby outright on the streets of Cairo, “Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?” — Spurlock talks to scholars and activists in places like Jordan and Israel and Morocco about the roots of terrorism in economic and social hopelessness. But he also talks to ordinary people on the streets of these places, and discovers that they have the same hopes and fears as the rest of us: they want a peaceful life and more for their kids than they had. It’s hardly a newsflash, except, well, it kind of is, because even though it’s only a small part of this zippy 90-minute movie, it’s more than most of us will ever have seen of regular folk in the Middle East.

What makes it all work is how honest and grounded Spurlock is. He’s not expecting world peace tomorrow. He’s not even saying that shooting off a rocket launcher — which he gets the chance to do with his U.S. troop escort in Afghanistan — is not “awesome.” He’s just wondering why we’re not all talking better and smarter and wiser about the things we’re talking about.

The DVD: The only extras are a collection of additional interviews and deleted scenes, but they’re as intriguing as the rest of the film. The “alternate ending” (no, it’s not a fantasy in which Spurlock does, in fact, find bin Laden), which posits a Western showdown between the U.S. and the Middle East, looks like snark and sounds like common sense. A conversation with three women in Saudi Arabia about being a woman there is revealing and poignant. A talk with a member of the Irish Republican Army about concepts of terrorism is highly provocative. And there’s more, too.

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