Spurlock seeks truth in World search for bin Laden

by Beacon Staff • April 16, 2008

Of course, that's not really the point of Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? It's not even the question Spurlock tries to answer during his four-continent journey from his toney apartment in New York's Lower East Side to the tribal Peshawar district in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the presumed seat of Al Qaeda international.,SPOILER ALERT : Morgan Spurlock has not discovered Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. END SPOILER.

Of course, that's not really the point of Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? It's not even the question Spurlock tries to answer during his four-continent journey from his toney apartment in New York's Lower East Side to the tribal Peshawar district in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the presumed seat of Al Qaeda international.

That question is something more along the lines of: "Osama bin Laden: Fountainhead or Figurehead?" But, by the end of Spurlock's film, even that query is essentially discarded as unimportant.

That said, this venture is hardly misguided or pointless. What animates Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? is not the answering of the eponymous question, but the asking. Though he's ultimately disappointed in his search for the $25 million (dead or alive) man, Spurlock's journey unveils a segment of Middle Eastern society of which the West is barely cognisant. And the parallels he draws elevate the film beyond the petty voyeurism of hunting America's sworn enemy.

In a way, Spurlock's admission of his inability to answer the titular question (in contrast to the obnoxious speculation for which Michael Moore settles in the topically-similar Fahrenheit 9/11) is a healthy satire of the people duly charged with capturing the most wanted man in the world-our government. It is also a testament to the sincerity he brings to the film.

Where in the World is a first-person documentary, and watching it requires spending most of two hours in a one-sided conversation with Spurlock, a daunting task for viewers if a fulminator like Michael Moore is involved. But where Moore seems simply to crave our attention, Spurlock makes us feel as if he is our eyes and ears on a journey few would have the courage to make.

Moreover, he avails the spotlight, the microphone and even some of the film's best lines whenever possible.

Spurlock's earnest personality becomes doubly important. The audience is spared the sanctimonious insinuation of Fahrenheit 9/11, and treated instead to what feels like honest investigation.

En route to Pakistan, Spurlock meets Peshawar tribesman, Saudi gangsters, Palestinians, Israelis and more. There are moderates and extremists in all corners. But instead of settling for sensationalizing the inherent irrationality and hostility of Western extremists (in Jerusalem and in Washington, D.C.) and their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, Spurlock offers an illuminating, nuanced focus on the moderates among us and them.

One of the several international phenomena Spurlock uncovers during his travels is that most of us eschew violence and desire a safe place in which to make a living and raise a family. Though too easily forgotten, that's not surprising. A less-expected discovery is the near-universal rejection of Osama bin Laden among Middle Eastern Muslims.

Afghanis, Pakistanis, Jordanians and Saudis all curse bin Laden's name when asked about his whereabouts.

Moderate Palestinians really hate Osama (while some extremist Muslims like him) for co-opting what they see as a geopolitical struggle for their homeland and exploiting the religious undertones to stoke anti-Israel; and anti-American sentiment.

In this way, Spurlock explores bin Laden's role as the antagonist in the global War on Terror. There is no lack of incisive macropolitical insight here. Weighty ideas like bin Laden as a product of his environment, Al Qaeda as a global enterprise and the folly of America's foray into Iraq are all discussed at depths rarely plumbed.

It's not the words of traditional newsmakers that resonate in Where in the World, though. Spurlock goes to great lengths to give voice to salt-of-the-earth folks all over the Middle East.

The film's most thought-provoking scenes come from these Joe Blows. The setting changes often, but the message remains the same: they have no use for Al Qaeda or bin Laden and mostly disdain the jihadist movement as an abomination of Islam. They need clean water, work and good schools for their children, but the shocking hubris that propels both sides of the War on Terror catches them-the poor people in each of the countries Spurlock visits-in the crossfire.

This discovery helps Where in the World transcend the ephemerality of the typical topical movie.

A predeliction to chortling-even among the tribal elders in Peshawar-is the last and most enduring phenomenon Spurlock discovers. He shows that behind every surly American infantryman's sneer, and behind every Saudi jihadist's deathly stare, hides a smile waiting to break out, no matter how bad our world's superpowers screw up.

And so, the best line of Where in the World comes from an ancient man in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, where last American forces almost caught bin Laden. Spurlock asks him where he thinks the world's most famous terrorist is, to which he responds, "Who?" Spurlock tries to explain that bin Laden is the man who attacked America, and finally recognition dawns over the wrinkled tribesman.

"Fuck him," he says. And then, after a beat that reaffirms the international language of comedic timing:

"And fuck America."