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Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?   C+

The Weinstein Company

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Writers: Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock
Cast: Morgan Spurlock.

Review by Rob Vaux

Morgan Spurlock deserves all the credit in the world for good intentions. His new documentary, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? has its heart firmly in the right place, and delivers a message that maybe a few more people need to hear. If it has anything near the cultural impact that Super Size Me did, no amount of criticism from the peanut gallery will matter: the good it does will far outweigh our petty sniping. Kudos to Spurlock for endeavoring to make the world a better place while most of the rest of us are happy just lying on the couch.

As filmmaking, however, Osama Bin Laden feels unduly sparse. It relies too much on Spurlock's own personality to make simple and fairly obvious points in a manner which never offends, but certainly fails to linger. He begins with a stated thesis of the sort he seems extremely good at, and which can certainly get bums on seats if the cultural zeitgeist is right. Seven years after 9/11, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden remains at large. What if Spurlock went looking for him: hit the road, journeyed across the Middle East, and did his darndest to uncover whatever dusty cave holds the West's number one boogeyman? It's a cute notion, aided by a cocktail of clever narrative gags and the right combination of earnestness and absurdity. More importantly, the results serve less to uncover a real monster (SPOILER ALERT: they don't find him) than to dispel a large number of false ones. Spurlock travels all over the region, from Morocco and Egypt to the Palestinian Territories to the fundamentalist Twilight Zone of Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan and Pakistan where most experts believe bin Laden remains deep in seclusion. Along the way, he talks to a large number of people on the streets of Middle East and finds -- surprise! -- that they're not all that different from us.

Besides its peppy and engaging tone, Osama Bin Laden benefits most from the fact that we never see material like this on the news. While the mainstream media contents itself with standard issue fearmongering and shots of al-Qaida lunatics pledging death to the Great Satan, Spurlock endeavors to reveal the 99% of the Muslim world marching to a different beat. The folks he meets are largely poor but cheerful, concerned not with slaughtering the infidel but with the day-to-day tasks of doing their jobs and raising their children. Most of them speak very positively about America, their anger directed not at its citizens or its institutions but rather at select parts of its foreign policy. Spurlock makes a few excellent points about the root cause of terrorism -- pointing his finger at the poverty of the region and observing how those in its grip can be more easily swayed by hatred and religious dogma -- and while he travels to a number of places widely believed to be unsafe, we see little onscreen trouble. The worst of it comes from a surprising source, but still feels more like a genuine misunderstanding rather than any inset cultural xenophobia.

It's all fine, just fine... but also pretty basic and not especially enlightening. The idea that Islam isn't really the enemy has been forwarded a number of times before, and all but the most jingoistic Westerners have probably figured it out by now. Osama Bin Laden constantly circles around that generalized shtick, gussying it up with local flavor at each new stop, but otherwise settling into comfortable repetition. Once we grasp that notion, it has nowhere else to go, relying instead on Spurlock's gregarious charisma to carry it through. His onscreen prominence creates its own share of problems: the ostensible reason for launching on this quest is that he is about to become a father and wants his child to grow up in a better future. The details of the pregnancy -- including recurring cuts back to his girlfriend Alex in the States and an eventual shot of the birth itself -- smack unduly of ego, as does the use of Spurlock as a video-game character squaring off against his terrorist quarry. The technique worked better in Super Size Me where he served as his own guinea pig in that film's central experiment. Here it detracts rather badly from the overall message, and while Spurlock's persona is always likeable (far more so than, say, Michael Moore), a little less of it would have gone a long way.

None of that besmirches the goodwill at Osama Bin Laden's core or changes the fact that open dialogue of this sort is sadly lacking in the media today. Spurlock is intelligent and articulate, and the optimism of his work here comes as a breath of fresh air in an age of fearful demagoguery. But even with all that in its corner, the best Osama Bin Laden can come up with is a reasonably amusing refrain of "Kumbaya." The sentiment is always worthwhile, but it helps sometimes to have a little more weight behind it.

Review published 04.17.2008.

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