Monday, Aug. 18, 2008

Where's Osama?

By David Luhrssen
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A few short years ago, back when it appeared that documentaries would be the next big thing in movie theaters, Super Size Me was all the rage. In it, a prankish young filmmaker called Morgan Spurlock put himself in death’s way by trying to live on a diet of fast food. Super Size Me was funny and pointed, an outrageous and probably largely accurate assessment of an industry poisoning the public by promoting fattening, unhealthy food.

Spurlock puts himself in the crosshairs again with Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Donning a Kevlar vest, he heads for the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan in search of the world’s most wanted man. The film stirred little interest in theaters earlier this year. Moviegoers were not responding to films about Iraq or the war on terror and documentaries of all sorts were tanking. There had been a glut of crummy movies by untalented wannabes, pointing digital cams at their subjects and hoping for the best.

Out now on DVD, Where in the World is neither as bad as most recent documentaries nor as good as SuperSize Me. The animated scenes near the onset, with bin Laden as a video game villain in combat against Spurlock, are simultaneously amusing, glib, self-indulgent and make the point that bin Laden’s image is being perpetuated in popular culture as an all-purpose boogieman.

It was one thing for Spurlock to put his heart and digestive tract in jeopardy by eating at McDonald’s every day. In Where in the World, our jocular everydude appears out of his depth—a backpacking American tourist who took a wrong turn down a dark alley. Where in the World is more or less The Middle East for Dummies.

And yet, in the end, after many silly missteps, Spurlock leaves behind several important impressions from his whirlwind tour of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the people he encounters don’t hate Americans but hate the U.S. government for its support of their own tyrannical regimes. Many Afghans hate bin Laden for bringing a plague of disaster on their heads. Most would like to see the Taliban and the Americans gone so they can get on with their lives.

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