A film review by Craig J. Koban





2008, PG-13, 90 mins.

A documentary by Morgan Spurlock

I think that Morgan Spurlock is an agreeable and somewhat likeable on-screen presence.  He has a sort of affable, everyman appeal that is easy to digest, albeit in modest dosages.  

However, I think that his spirited, happy-go-lucky, jokester persona is precisely what's wrong with his documentaries: his presence in them is both distracting and undermines the issues that they are trying to tackle.  His main problem is that he thinks his films are high concept and daringly tackle big, hot button issues.  Unfortunately, his efforts are decidedly low concept and don’t essentially enlighten us on anything we did not already know before we entered the cinema.  What’s worse is that Spurlock is a bit shameful as a cheap exhibitionist that hides under the mask of a crusader of the people.

Consider his last effort, 2004’s inexplicably Oscar nominated documentary, SUPER SIZE ME, where Spurlock made a feeble attempt to address and find answers for the escalating obesity epidemic in North America.  Spurlock is also known for creating I BET YOU WILL, a series of Internet webcasts where ordinary people were asked to do beyond extraordinary and weird things in exchange for loot (some episodes, I have read, featured disgusting stunts ranging from eating an entire jar of mayonnaise to ingesting a burrito made of worms).  SUPER SIZE me essentially was one long webcast episode of the show where Spurlock decided to eat only at McDondald’s, three times a day, for 30 days, to see the effects it would have on the body. 

SPOILER WARNING: He got fat and unhealthy, which lead him to conclude that Mcd’s food is “bad” for everyone.

Sarcasm aside, I very proudly listed SUPER SIZE ME on my list of the Ten Worst Films of 2004, mainly because I saw it – relative to the documentary genre as a whole – as a complete failure.  I have modest expectations for documentaries: I hope for them to open my eyes up to its subject matter and for them to be thought-provoking and challenging with the material.  SUPER SIZE ME did none of that and was essentially an excuse for Spurlock to perform a disgracefully self-indulgent stunt that never raised or addressed any of the serious and probing issues with obesity as a whole.  Instead of looking at the heart of the issue, he was sensationalistic in parading around and, in the end, revealed how terrible junk food can be to one’s overall health.  

Gee, thanks a pant load, Morgan.  

His new documentary, the intriguingly titled WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, suffers the same fate as SUPER SIZE ME:  It takes a highly disagreeable and woefully simplistic look at a very dicey and complicated problem that has vast, real world implications.  Like his 2004 doc, Spurlock’ presence is everywhere in his new film, kind of alike a poor man’s Michael Moore, but without the scathing and sarcastic overbite on his subjects (yes, Moore has his share of critics, but he never takes the easy road like Spurlock does).  Spurlock, as stated, is hard to really hate, but his appearance in the film shows him trying hard to play the part of the prototypical, naive everyman going on a crusade searching for answers.  If anything is true then it’s the obvious fact that Spurlock has no firm understanding of the material he’s embarking in during this documentary, not to mention that he repeats past mistakes by revealing to us – right before the film irises out to its end credits – moral messages that I’m sure anyone of us could have got from reading a Hallmark greeting card.

The film opens modestly with Spurlock and his vegan wife, whom – in SUPER SIZE ME – grew increasingly agitated with her husband’s month of Big Mac eating escapades (not to mention that his libido was suffering as a result).  fast forward a few years and the couple is now expecting their first baby, which leads to Spurlock asking himself whether he thinks the current world is a safe haven to raise a new baby.  This, of course, leads him to his other big question:  Where in the hell is the most infamous, murderous, and notorious terrorist in modern history been hiding since the autumn of 2001?

With an impassioned determination, Morgan does what any man would do in his situation: he abandons his knocked up wife during her last crucial few months of her pregnancy and treks aimlessly around the world to find bin Laden, earth’s biggest fugitive.  Yes…that’s right…he will take it upon himself to uncover what the entire military and technological might of the US could not do.  

Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.

The title to the film, in all fairness, is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as Spurlock – as the film progresses – is less and less focused on learning about and understanding Laden as he is about engaging in an episodic travelogue that takes him to places as far ranging as Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Pakistan, and finally Afghanistan.  Okay, so it’s clear from the forefront that Spurlock will not, in fact, find bin Laden (that’s a given), but I at least expected his journey through the film to be more invigorating and involving.  Instead, he strives for cheap and sophomoric laughs by asking a series of repetitive questions over and over again to everyday people in the streets of the countries he’s visiting.  Questions as probing as “Where is Osama?” to “What do you think Americans?” to “If you could find Osama, would you turn him in for the reward?” are explored tirelessly, all to highly frustrating effect.  Alas, throughout his “tireless” and “soul searching” journey, Spurlock comes to one easily foreseeable conclusion: 

Underneath it all, Muslims are mostly good people that share our hatred of war and bloodshed.

Gee, thanks.

I am not sure what I disliked more about this film: the sluggishness and lack of focus in its approach from Spurlock, or the fact that he goes out of his way to intercut moments of his wife back home throughout the film,  who’s trying to deal with his baby coming to full term and the nagging doubts about whether her husband will be back in time to see his newborn child.  Now, you may be wondering why Spurlock would not just produce his documentary after the birth so he could be at home to nurture and assist his wife, but the point of engaging on his somewhat hazardous travels while being away from his wife is to disgracefully prop himself up as a brave champion that is making personal sacrifices to get to the heart of the film’s themes.  Oh…he does so in an effort to make the world safer for his unborn child. 

Gimmie a break.

Perhaps the biggest joke is on Spurlock himself.  It seems that after he asks dozens of random people about the whereabouts of bin Laden, he is more often than not greeted with mocking laughter back.  Moreover, simply speaking with people on the streets is beyond one-sided and undemocratic: How could anyone possible get a well-rounded picture of the leader of Al Qaeda by just simply taking it up with street vendors and onlookers?  Beyond that, what about Bin Laden himself?  Spurlock in no way investigates the man or hones in much of his film to exploring the details of his life.  Oh, he does throw up a plethora of fancy computer visuals and animated sequences on the screen (one shows a CGI Spurlock engage in a super powered street fight with bin Laden) that only goes to show how jokingly he takes his efforts in the film.  Or he thought that maybe the flash and zippy aesthetic allure of the animated sequences would help distract viewers from the fact that he really lacks knowledge and insight into the themes he’s trying to dissect.

There are many moments that are included in the film that are considerably disreputable, as is the case where Spurlock is being nearly physically accosted by a gang of Orthodox Jews that verbally threaten him to leave their village, or another scene where he enters a Saudi Arabian super market to buy groceries and asks the staff if they could help him find good hand cream…and the whereabouts of bin Laden.  His predilection to eking out comedy out of these strained moments reeks of desperation.  Equally desperate are his attempts to get his interview subjects to talk candidly about US foreign policy and Islamic fundamentalism.  Only one interview in the entire film is truly interesting; Spurlock talks to an American-Arab man that says – with reasonably accuracy – that the current policies of the Bush Administration have not successfully won the war on terror, but have rather further exported terrorism across the planet.  In his mind, killing bin Laden will not help, because the US has so thoroughly “lit a match” under the already escalating fires of terrorism across the world.  Regrettably, just when you think the documentary is going somewhere worthwhile (as is the case with this interview), Spurlock fumbles the ball and awkwardly and aimlessly proceeds forward, all while cracking a sardonic smile laced with his characteristic handle-bar mustache.  

I guess that there is a noble-minded purpose and message at the heart of this film, not to mention that I do believe that Spurlock – at times – does care about what he is embarking on.  Yet, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN has such a common sensical blatancy about its humanistic lessons.  Unluckily for viewers, Spurlock sure takes an awfully long time arriving at messages of “we should all just learn to get along” and that “all Muslims and people that are different than us are not vengeful terrorists.”  Perhaps even more tiresomely than he did in SUPER SIZE ME, Spurlock’s globe-trotting stunt (and that’s what it is) is much ado about nothing:  It goes out of its way to explain to us things we already were informed about.  Even more uncomplimentary and unsavory is the notion that Spurlock risks his own safety in many war torn nations to prove that he is a man that (a) gives a damn and (b) Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, and other foreign nations wish for what we want: a bright and promising future for their kids.   

At the heart of this overbearing “preaching to the converted” is a final moment where Spurlock arrives at a dangerous Pakistani border where he thinks his travels to finally locate bin Laden have ended  (yeah…right) and speculates as to whether he should cross it and go on (the sign boldly proclaims that no foreign presence can pass).  The music grows to a triumphant crescendo, the camera swoops in and closes in on the documentarian and he looks into the heavens and - with the emotional weight of a soap opera actor - states, “It’s not worth it.”

Hmmm...neither is this film.

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