I remember, right after 9/11, when we were told that Osama Bin Laden, "the evil one," had holed up in a cave somewhere in Tora Bora. It seemed like only a matter of time before the most powerful country in the world tracked him down and brought him to justice. But here we are, nearly seven years later, and except when he decides to make one himself, there's no sign of the guy. The Bush administration purports to no longer be interested in Bin Laden, dead or alive. But Morgan Spurlock, who made the ultimate sacrifice of eating McDonald's Happy Meals for a month while making Super Size Me, decided to have a go at finding America's Most Wanted. The result, which could have been called Osama and Me or The Road to Peshawar, is instead called Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Once again adopting the faux-nave shtick that Michael Moore can no longer quite get away with, Spurlock sets off on his search-and-destroy mission, leaving behind a wife who's pregnant with their first child. And it's pretty clear from the beginning that his tongue is pointed in the general direction of his cheek. The movie opens with an animated sequence that's perhaps too willfully entertaining, and it's structured as a videogame in which we, the viewers, keep graduating to the next level, one more step closer to the buried treasure. This is a rather blatant attempt on Spurlock's part to speak to Generation Xbox, but it's hard to imagine them peeling their eyes away from their computer monitors long enough to follow him to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and....
Well, I don't want to give the whole thing away. Besides, it's the journey, not the destination, and Spurlock has put together quite an itinerary. First stop, Cairo, where he meets with a relative (however distant) of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the so-called brains behind al-Qaida. The conversation is surprisingly cordial, even amusing, Spurlock always looking for a way to diffuse the time bombs in his path. He's doing a slight Borat number, playing dumb so his interview subjects let down their guards. But he lacks Sacha Baron Cohen's commitment to character, and the movie can turn earnest at the drop of a...well, a bomb, one that blows up a school in Israel and gets our hero thinking about his own future kindergartner back home. Shouldn't he be helping his wife through her Lamaze classes?
Yes, but then who would take us on our guided tour of the Middle East and beyond? One can imagine the reaction of Spurlock's friends and family upon being told of his plans: "You're liable to get yourself killed!" And his wife reportedly forbade him from going to Iraq. Even so, there are moments of danger or near-danger, plus an amusing false alarm in Tel Aviv when an abandoned suitcase turns out to contain only a bikini - a routine bomb scare in a city where there is an average of 10 a day. Less amusing, but equally revealing, is the reception Spurlock gets from the Orthodox Jewish community when he attempts to query them as to Bin Laden's whereabouts. It's like a fox has been let loose in the hen house, except the hens start pecking away at the fox, determined to defend their sacred territory.
Defending one's territory becomes the hidden theme as Spurlock continues to walk up to strangers and stick a microphone in their faces. And the greatest threat, in their not-so-humble opinions, is the good ol' U.S. of A. Spurlock, who seems to hail from the left side of the political spectrum, isn't about to argue with that. But what's interesting is the sheer number of times someone says he loves the American people but hates the American government. Can that possibly be true? And, if so, is there a way we can build on it? Perhaps the chief value of the movie is the glimpse it provides of the way the Muslim world sees us. Compare that to Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which only showed us how Brooks thought the Muslim world sees us. When he's not making jokes, Spurlock's a good listener.
He's often making jokes, though, some better than others. And the movie itself has a rather ribald sense of humor. If you've always wanted to see Osama Bin Laden perform "You Can't Touch This" à la MC Hammer, here's your chance. But around about the hundredth time he asks people if they know where Bin Laden is, it may start to annoy you as much as it sometimes does them. Spurlock doesn't really have the right personality to play the clownish gadfly; he's just not much of a card. Plus, he's reluctant to offend people face-to-face, whereas Michael Moore thrives on it. What Spurlock does have is an ability to make people relax. He's comfortable to be around. In fact, you can almost imagine Osama Bin Laden himself cracking a smile and waving off the camera when asked where in the world he's been hiding himself.