Morgan Spurlock -- whose mix of affable good humor, wise guy populism, shameless showmanship and participatory journalism made Super Size Me a breakout hit at Sundance in 2004 -- is back in Park City with his follow-up feature documentary, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? And those elements are all still very much in effect in Spurlock's sophomore feature film, even if they may occasionally feel in need of slight fine-tuning. Inspired by the impending birth of his first child, Spurlock hits upon one thing he can do to make the world a safer place for his yet-to-be-born offspring; find and capture Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind September 11th and the leader of Al Qaeda. As Spurlock notes in his introduction, "If I've learned anything from big budget action films, it's that complicated world problems are best solved by one lonely guy. ...." And while Spurlock may not actually answer the question of where, he actually tackles, with humor, probing wit and a certain grace, the much more important question of why.
And while Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? offers more than a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, at least there is a little medicine. After security training and an extensive battery of shots, Spurlock begins touring the globe to find out who Osama is and where he came from. A quote from Dick Cheney gives a party-line take on the roots of terrorist hatred for America: "They hate us, they hate our country, they hate the liberties for which we stand." But, as comedian David Cross notes in one of his charged stand-up bits, if the terrorists really hated freedom, then the Netherlands would be dust long before America got attacked. ...
So why do they hate us? Spurlock goes out into, as the op-ed pieces call it, 'the Arab street,' in Jordan and Morocco and Palestine and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to not only ask about Osama's whereabouts but also ask the people there how they feel about 9-11 and America. And with a mix of interviews and escapades and animations, Spurlock lays out a simple thesis: That America's image has been hurt and sullied for years by its own conduct, primarily by propping up authoritarian regimes that deny their citizens economic and political freedoms, with those angry, disenfranchised poor embracing Islamic fundimentalism as the only thing that will listen and violence as the only way they can be heard. (Oh, and invading Iraq. And supporting Israel's efforts in the contested territories. And ...) Al Franken notes that when Liberals say they love America, it's like the love in a long marriage -- "I love you, but I'm mad you didn't take out the trash ... " or "I love you, but I can't believe you gave billions of dollars in arms and aid to Iraq during the '80s." It's still love, but it's tough love -- which includes asking hard questions and raising ugly facts. Spurlock says, flat-out, that in our desire to support two precious resources -- anti-communism during the Cold War and oil right now -- we have helped create the poverty, hopelessness and anger that is the meat and drink of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.
Of course, since the name listed as the directorial credit is "Morgan Spurlock" and not, say, "Ken Burns," we also get wacky sequences of a Flash-animated Osama doing the Hammer dance to "Can't Touch This." And phone calls with Spurlock's expectant wife, hoping he'll stay safe and get back before the baby arrives. And the theme from Shaft in Egyptian. Not all of this flashier material is a success -- a film-long theme of animated sequences appropriating the style of the popular Mortal Kombat videogame series gets very old very fast -- but when Spurlock stops worrying about being funny ha-ha and actually talks to people and looks at the world, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is precisely what you'd hope it might be -- a frank and fascinating and warm and smart look at the world we live in, and how it might be better. And Spurlock's not some naïve starry-eyed optimist either -- he speaks to Islamic radicals who suspect 9-11 is a hoax, as "America has all the Oscars," then suggesting that a nation capable of creating Babe the talking pig could certainly fake the collapse of the World Trade Center. Spurlock also talks to other people under ordinary and extraordinary circumstances -- a sequence where Spurlock is allowed to interview two Saudi high school students, with the kids darting nervous looks at their adult supervision, says a lot about the true nature and character of one of America's most vital allies in the region.
But Spurlock shows unhinged behavior outside of the Islamic world, too; a sequence in Israel looking at the question of West Bank settlements gets Spurlock and his crew essentially thrown out of a conservative neighborhood. The title joke goes on a bit too long -- at his final stop in Pakistan, Spurlock tells a shopkeeper "I'm looking to buy a net ... like, a big net, six feet around ..." But the interviews, which are human and humble, and his analysis -- breezy and blunt and just complete enough to make you want to go to a library and see if he's right or wrong or what subtleties he may have missed -- are right on. Spurlock never says it, but you feel his thesis principle shift as he tours the Middle East and Asia; he starts the film wanting his unborn child to be safer, but ends it wanting every kid everywhere to be safer, given opportunities of real liberty and the possibility of economic opportunity. Spurlock visits Afghanistan, and while his respect for the men and women in uniform who are keeping him safe is unquestionable, he also looks at the bombed-out ruin of a school destroyed two years ago and asks why no one's fixed it, why things have to be this way.
And, of course, he gets to shoot off some of the U.S. base's guns, inspiring him to ask if he can, while he's there, also try out a rocket launcher. Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is being sold as a joke -- Spurlock wandering the hills of Tora Bora yelling "Yoo-hoo! Osama?" into abandoned caves -- but Spurlock's analysis of America's role in the world and his quiet conversations with Muslims and people in the street truly provides not just food for thought but even hope. Spurlock's final voice-over says how it's going to take " ... really hard questions and real courage ..." to figure out America's possibilities for peace in, and with, the Islamic world and real safety at home. After years of easy slogans, expedient hypocrisy and photo-op poses of phony bravery from America's leaders, that kind of humility and hope is actually inspiring. At one point during Spurlock's world tour, a child in the streets of a Middle Eastern nation where poverty goes hand-in-hand with oppression is asked how he feels about Osama bin Laden, and his answer is frank: "I wish we had someone like Osama bin Laden ..." What Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? makes painfully clear, underneath all the fun and flash, is that unless America is careful and smart and truly principled as it moves forward, that kid's going to get his wish.