There is something irritatingly incongruous about shock doc filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? I still can’t put my finger on what exactly annoyed me so much. Was it the weirdness of seeing gee-whiz kid Spurlock hobnobbing among Muslim families, expounding on the how people are the same everywhere while a translator lurks out of frame? Was it watching the interesting factual narrative of the United States’ history in the Middle East totally cast aside in favor of simplistic conclusions about the nature of violence and backstabbing (it’s bad, duh)? Or was it the troubling idea of Spurlock (now back to his normal weight) meandering around the most dangerous areas of the world for Americans like a walking slice of Wonder Bread, with all the depth implied therein?
It doesn’t matter. Any one of these ridiculous contradictions is bad enough, and they are all present in Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, a fluffy puff documentary if there ever was one. Maybe it’s a good thing Spurlock distracts us with goofy animations and video game-esque montages that are sometimes funny but mostly just dumb. The basic problem here is that premise of the film (terrorism) is serious, but it’s treated with a sense of humor too broad for this sensitive subject.
The film is framed with the maudlin conceit of Spurlock’s wife Alexandra’s pregnancy. Faced with impending fatherhood, Spurlock experiences a crisis of sorts and sets out to find Osama Bin Laden with the maudlin idea of making the world safer for his child. Before he takes off on his grand adventure, Spurlock takes training courses in how to avoid bombs and safely evade snipers. These sequences evoke the fun of his first documentary; the glossy Super Size Me. Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? has shades of the solipsistic ethics Spurlock applied to Super Size Me, but is mostly is an exercise in narcissism once Spurlock heads to the Middle East.
Lacking any solid journalistic method, Spurlock chooses an assortment of countries connected to the personal history of Osama Bin Laden and visits them with the intent of querying “normal people” about their political views. While Spurlock has an undeniable charm, it quickly becomes very tiring watching him ask the same questions over and over with the same aw shucks demeanor endemic to the less culturally informed segment of our fair population. The “we’re all in this together” ethos Spurlock brings to the film is not thought provoking or even interesting, two things we know Spurlock can be when he’s on his game.
Some parts of the film are quite affecting, offering mere glimpses of what Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? might have been. Afghanistan in particular is shown as a country where relentless poverty and obvious disrepair have bred resentment and callousness in the population. “Fuck Bin Laden,” says an Afghan shopkeeper. “And fuck America.” In Saudi Arabia, Spurlock meets with some carefully vetted students whose frightened eyes continually dart back to their teachers when Spurlock attempts a political question. The best parts of the film are when the interview subjects quietly and sensibly explain their position in “the war on terror”, for lack of a better term. These are illuminating observations that add a bit of solemnity to the proceedings, until the aforementioned mentioned animations show up to ruin the tone.
It’s a tantalizing misfire. Though peppered with decent moments, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? fails to reach its stated goals (including the titular one, surprise, surprise). Morgan Spurlock truly had the opportunity to create a meaningful, entertaining documentary about terrorism but instead settled for bland platitudes and simplistic observations. Ultimately we’re left with the unshakeable feeling that Spurlock is making a broad joke out of an issue that isn’t really funny. His intent is surely good and we cannot doubt his sincerity without being heartless bastards, I can only offer that a lighthearted approach to a global storm of hatred focused on hapless Americans like him is not really what the world needs.