“Hey, you know who might have something worthwhile to say about American foreign policy in the Middle East?” thought someone with a lot of money and power and cultural influence recently. “That guy who filmed himself eating at McDonald’s for a month to see whether it’s bad for you.”
The guy is Morgan Spurlock, and his development as a writer, director and star has proceeded quite logically from 2004’s Super Size Me, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, to an appealing but self-defeating new nonfiction concoction, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?
It begins with the news that Spurlock’s wife, Alexandra, is pregnant, and the conveniently dramatic if entirely reasonable question of whether ours is any kind of world into which to bring a child. “By the time my kid’s out of diapers,everyone’s going to be a terrorist,” Spurlock says early on over a brisk, affectedly bemused, Flash-animated survey of recent international relations. Then, reckoning that the proposed $25 million bounty on Bin Laden’s head should just about cover the cost of private school for the filmmaker’s spawn, Spurlock is off to combat training and chasing leads in the Persian Gulf.
“If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action films,” he says, “it’s that complicated world problems are best solved by one lonely guy.” He’s kidding, sort of.
Um, this might not be easy to hear, but what if why they hate us is partly that our culture rewards a man for taking advantage of his wife’s pregnancy, while also sitting it out, to build his own political and pop-cultural brand? What if, in his way, Spurlock is as much a careerist trading on fear and anger and confusion as the Washington hawks whose policies he lampoons?
OK, fine, maybe that’s overstating the case. It’s all just a “bit,” right? Some of it, sure. Take the scene, a knowing Super Size Me reprise, in which Spurlock readies himself for international travel with a consultation from his doctor: “You’re gonna need a whole bunch of shots and a whole bunch of prescriptions,” the doctor says with a sigh, as if fully resigned to Spurlock’s wacky schemes. Or the filmmaker commiserating with all the other Bin Ladens listed in an Arab phone book: “I would be like, ‘Osama, you asshole, now I gotta change all my phone numbers!’”
As comedy, it works. As journalism, not so much. Were he fictional — say, some unreliable narrator descended from the abundant stock of satirical characters in anti-war literature, or even a similarly familiar persona from film (à la Borat or Albert Brooks’ caricature from Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World), the inherently affable Spurlock would at least have somewhere to go. But he’s all too real, wise enough not to bank on political correctness for its own sake, yet stunted by his reliance on stunts. He corners himself between facetious and flip.
Near the movie’s end, Spurlock summarizes what has been his mission, to “go talk to these people that we’re taught to be so scared of all the time.” Problem is, he hasn’t found any of “these people,” and hasn’t actually seemed to want to, settling instead, generally, for more companionable conversationalists. Turns out the denizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco tend to be rational, intelligent, more or less decent human beings, with hopes and fears and families to look after just like the rest of us. And they’re about as fed up with the murderous jihadist wackjobs who had to go and make war on America’s political machine as they are with the machine itself. Did Spurlock really consider this a revelation?
Eventually, Where in the World … ? seems to tire of its own shtick — almost, but not quite, earning real empathy on those grounds alone. What’s supposed to come across as a climactic point of insight reads instead like Spurlock’s sheepish admission that his premise was bogus all along — that he’d never really planned to go beyond the bit.
It’s an unfortunate, two-fold failure of nerve: first, the audacious comedian who could push his conceit to the extreme but couldn’t do it with a straight face; and second, the urban American liberal humanist who could probe the darkest corners of his world but still couldn’t get past his comfort zone. Maybe being a dad will help.