In the drab, treacherous hills along the Afghan-Pakistani border, Morgan Spurlock sticks his head into a cave entrance and shouts, "Yoo-hoo! O-sa-ma!" Alas, there is no answer. This is not a SPOILER ALERT, unless you were maybe expecting to hear a heavily accented voice reply, "Come on in, kid. I've been itching to chat with some American doofus, if he only had the nerve to drop by. And, sure, bring your camera crew in. We'll all do lunch."
In his non-headline-making but often entertaining docu-travelogue Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? (henceforth acronymed as WITWIOBL), Spurlock resolves to comb the Islamic world in an attempt to locate al-Qaeda's CEO. Taking a cue from Hollywood action movies that in impossible missions, where armies and statecraft fail, one lone hero can succeed he travels to Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking to and occasionally learning from street vendors, pundits, schoolkids, government officials and U.S. soldiers. To most of them he poses the simple question that is the movie's title. Will anyone tell him? Hey, ya never know. (Except you do.)
It's a project only slightly more quixotic, and potentially lots more dangerous, than Spurlock's last big ordeal: subsisting for a month solely on food from McDonald's. That stunt generated the 2004 Super Size Me, which grossed a fat $11.5 million at the box office (on a lean $65,000 budget) and earned an Oscar nomination. The movie also allowed Spurlock to become his own little doc-conglomerate, hosting and producing the TV series 30 Days and lending his exec-producer imprimatur to such like-minded nonfiction films as The Third Wave (Americans in post-tsunami Sri Lanka) and What Would Jesus Buy? (on the super-SantaClausification of Christmas).
This bustling leftie docu-fomenting could make Spurlock a younger Michael Moore. Each man is from a working-class city Flint, Mich., for Moore; Parkersburg, W. Va, for Spurlock whose hard economic history has produced low median incomes. Each came to documentaries after working in other fields: journalism for Moore, playwrighting for Spurlock. And each puts his own quirky personality at the center of issue-driven movies; they both make ego-friendly documentaries. But where Moore is belligerent (and funny), Spurlock is laid-back (and funny). Moore, the provocateur, pokes his finger in his adversaries' chests. Spurlock plays the sweet slacker, putting himself in bizarre situations and pretty much letting stuff happen.
Unlike Moore's movies, Spurlock's don't split their seams with ideas and nervous energy. For all their edifying political ambitions, they are closer to doper comedies, with Spurlock as a Cheech, Bill or Harold searching for a Chong, Ted or Kumar. (In his new movie, during a visit to an Orthodox neighborhood in Israel, he actually addresses one Hasidic man as "Dude.") Here's this guy doing these nutty things all those McNuggets, all those Muslims and behaving as if he'd just taken a toke of something stronger than a Marlboro Lite. In the recent history of nonfiction films, WITWIOBL, no less than Super-Size Me, occupies the fairly extensive, if unexplored, territory between Fahrenheit 9/11 and Jackass Number Two. (Spurlock's earliest claim to fame was the webcast and MTV show I Bet You Will, in which contestants did ugly things to win prizes.)
In WITWIOBL Spurlock hears thoughtful comments from people who've lived under the scythe of war all their lives. A young Palestinian man laments that "9/11 legitimized the American presence in the Middle East" and insists that "We are fighting to make our homeland. It's none of their [al-Qaeda's] business." An Israeli journalist, discussing the Palestinian problem, mourns that "We're being held hostage by extremists from both sides." In Afghanistan, one fellow says of OBL, "If we find him, we'll tear him apart." Then Spurlock asks an old man about bin Laden's whereabouts. "Who is he?" is the reply. Spurlock says, "The guy who blew up the buildings in America." The old man practically spits it out: "F--- him." After a moment, he adds, "And f--- America."
Not everyone is so forthcoming. In Saudi Arabia where he drives past the "bin Laden Aviation Company" Spurlock visits a school and is allowed to question two 18-year-old boys. What does he get? Terse answers, then "No answer." And before long, from their hovering teachers, "Interview over." His only threat of physical violence comes in Israel, from the Orthodox Jews who see his camera and shout, "Get the hell out of here!" (You get the full versions of these confrontations in the new Random House book Spurlock has written about his trip,)
Apparently the Hasidim weren't aware of the movie's premise. As Spurlock says, "I'm not looking for trouble, I'm just looking for answers." A true American innocent abroad, the filmmaker figures that, if he asks nicely, maybe radical Islamists won't want to kill us. He's a Rodney King figure pleading for people to just get along. And even if Spurlock's one-man Peace Corps campaign doesn't work, he'll have fun trying. More fun than the viewer, sometimes. While embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he gets to fire a rocket launcher. His reaction, and you could have guessed this: "That was awesome!" He also has advice for the locals. To attract tourists, Spurlock suggests, they should build a theme park. "You could say, 'Come to Tora Bora. It's da bomb!'" Sometimes he's most engaging when he's most jackassian.
The movie has a weird parallel plot. At the start of the film, Spurlock learns that his wife Alexandra Jamieson is pregnant with their first child. He seems zazzed about the prospect he just has to make his movie first. So WITWIOBL crosscuts from Spurlock in the Middle East to the increasingly bulbous Jamieson in Manhattan, understandably fretful that her beau might die before her baby is born. Spurlock's rationale is that he's got to at least try to make sense out of this crazy geopolitical mess we're in, so he can someday tell his child he did his best to fix it. But his real goal is what occurs to many men on hearing their about to become fathers: flight! The film is an adventurer's version of a boy's night out, and Spurlock trumps it up as a mission to justify abandoning Jamieson in the months when she needs him most. Sorry, hon, I've got to go save the planet.
Spurlock wouldn't be the first man to insist he's searching for something important to the world when he's really abandoning someone important to him.