Monday, April 21, 2008

Lost: Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?

The danger of falling in love with the sound of your own voice is that you might cease considering the words coming out of your mouth. This is the downfall of documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who in his latest “investigative” film, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, seems intent on documenting his preexisting understanding of the universe rather than discovering anything new. Basing his picture around a tongue-in-cheek attempt to locate the globe’s most-wanted terrorist, Spurlock spends 95 minutes interviewing his way through the Middle East in an effort to show how inhabitants of those countries are different from Americans, except when they’re the same. Despite the titular premise, the film’s true thesis is hard to determine. The only thing that’s clear is that Spurlock wants to be in front of the camera in the event it comes across anything worth filming.

Spurlock isn’t the first documentary filmmaker to act as the star of his own show, of course. With the notable exception of Sicko, Michael Moore muckrakes his way into almost every shot of his documentaries. Yet the notable difference between the two filmmakers is that Moore knows what his presence is worth. In his films, Moore plays the guy with a beef. You can debate his expertise, his honesty and his tactics, but from opening titles to closing credits you can’t debate his relevance because Moore’s doggedness won’t allow it. Spurlock, however, has no such axe to grind. He begins his hunt for “OBL,” he says, because the upcoming birth of his first child prompts him to do some soul-searching about the world’s great dangers. But that’s bullshit, and Spurlock knows it. To Moore’s genuine finger-waving anger, Spurlock provides shrugged shoulders of ambivalence. For all his supposed daring, he’s less a man on a mission than an employee trying to justify an expense account.

The reality, it’s clear, is that Spurlock wanted to do a movie on terrorism, and so he backtracked until he found a reason why he should or could. That’s fine in theory, but the trouble with that approach is that it undermines the film’s importance: By going so far out on such a flimsy limb in order to validate all that follows, Spurlock gives the impression that his mission requires justification, as if a filmmaker can’t make a film just because. When at the end of the movie Spurlock is calling his adventure a success because he has narrowed down Osama’s location to probably-Pakistan – even though news footage used within the documentary confirms that this was already a common theory – the desperate grab at relevance turns Spurlock into the awkward punchline of a joke he forgot he was telling.

If Spurlock can’t find a compelling reason why we should watch his film, it’s only right to wonder what we’re doing staring up at the screen. All too often, Where in the World feels like nothing more than a goofy travelogue with a lame “Where’s Osama?” running gag that at one point has Spurlock yelling “Yoooo-hooooo…” into a cave in Tora Bora. The exotic locations and Spurlock’s general cheer keep the experience watchable, but that’s a far cry from making the film worthwhile. With its cornball country music ditties and CGI sequences featuring Spurlock squaring off with bin Laden as characters in a video game, this is a documentary so focused on its spoonful of sugar that it forgets the part about making the medicine go down. Spurlock doesn’t have anything to say or any logic to impart, he just wants to talk.

Occasionally, he does talk to the right people, such as when Spurlock has a fascinating non-discussion with two 18-year-old students in Saudi Arabia who profess not to have a single opinion on America, lest they give the wrong answer in front of their onlooking principal. But more often than not, Spurlock’s whims fail to bear fruit. His most common mistake is forcing everything through his expectant-father prism, as if he’s the first man about to have a child. When Spurlock walks through the wreckage of a classroom near the Gaza Strip that had been shelled only hours before, he refuses to let the images speak for themselves and instead contemplates aloud how frightening it would be to send his child to school on such hazardous terrain. Calls home to his pregnant wife, Alexandra Jamieson, come off as either pathetic attempts to justify his absence or delusions of grandeur over the significance of his mission. Usually both.

It’s a shame to see Spurlock misfire to this degree, because his debut film, Super Size Me, was a surprise hit of 2004. In that documentary, in which Spurlock acts as lab rat by eating nothing but McDonald’s cuisine for a month to test the effects of fast food, the filmmaker was no more surprised by the end result than he is here, when he fails to locate bin Laden. But whereas Super Size Me began from a small idea (30 days of Big Macs) and grew into a surprisingly diverse and in-depth analysis of the fast food industry, Where in the World has nothing beyond its premise, which – comic though it is supposed to be – still causes Spurlock to overdraw from his creative account as he tries to make good on it. Spurlock’s “decision” at the end of the film to return home to his family rather than risk his life by traveling into a Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan reveals a filmmaker who has lost his way. If pursuing bin Laden isn’t “worth it,” the entire “search” wasn’t worth it. And thus the film tastes like time wasted, for everyone.


Fox said...


I haven't seen this yet, but your review is outstanding. You sum up, in the first paragraph, my frustrations with most documentary filmmakers.

And then this:

"When Spurlock walks through the wreckage of a classroom near the Gaza Strip that had been shelled only hours before, he refuses to let the images speak for themselves and instead contemplates aloud how frightening it would be to send his child to school on such hazardous terrain."

Full Disclosure: I'm not a fan of the documentary genre, but the ones that I appreciate are ones that get out of the way of the images.

Nothing is more visually irritating to me - other than the waste of celluloid that is recording a talking head - than when a filmmaker feels the need to talk over his camera work. This is cinema Spurlock, if I wanna see a news piece I will watch 60 Minutes.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Thanks. I'm very much a fan of the documentary format, especially as TV news broadcasts seem to get shorter and shallower each year. (Honestly: hasn't NBC caught enough child predators in elaborate stings? Aren't there other stories to cover?) PBS's "Frontline" and sometimes "60 Minutes" are among the few programs to offer any sort of in-depth reporting. So in my view we need documentaries as a cinematic version of long form journalism. That said, "Where In The World" is in fact a lot like "60 Minutes" ... to the point that Morgan Spurlock is like Andy Rooney: you've got to really love spending time with the guy to believe that his reports are time well spent.