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April 14, 2008

From Amman to Philadelphia: Around the World With Morgan Spurlock


The man who ate every meal for 30 days at McDonalds and chronicled it on film has, believe it or not, dreamed up a stunt even more dangerous for his new movie.


Supersize Me director Morgan Spurlock is back with a new documentary called Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? The movie will be gradually released throughout April. Spurlock screened the film near the University of Pennsylvania in early April and hosted a Q&A afterwards. The film itself is far from perfect, but it covers more ground, and gets to the bottom of the Middle East in ways not seen in any documentary this decade.


From its title, one would think the film was about the failure of the United States to find Bin Laden, and where he might be. But the movie is less a search for Bin Laden than a survey of a post-9/11 Mideast. Spurlock, who found himself about to become a father, said he took a hard look at the world he was about to bring a child into, and wanted to have a better understanding of it.


Therefore, he decided to take a tour of the Middle East, talk to people and see what he could find out a tour that took him to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and the border of Pakistan, though he thought better of actually entering the region where Bin Laden is purportedly hiding out.


In fact, Spurlock's greatest accomplishment may be that he somehow persuaded his wife to allow him to leave the country during much of her pregnancy. His first-person style and left-leaning outlook have drawn obvious comparisons to Michael Moore, but Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? owes less to Moore than to Thomas Friedman indeed, it often feels like a 90-minute film version of one of those Friedman columns where he learns the whole state of the world from a cab driver in Karachi.


Virtually every civilian Spurlock talks to in the film, from Cairo to Amman to Kabul, has the same sort of position: American people are great, but it's your government we can't stand. It's unclear if this was actually the consensus, or merely the footage he chose (Spurlock said he shot thousands of hours), but this is the point made by the film, and it seems to be Spurlock's position as well. Calling the film anti-American would be wrong, however. Spurlock speaks at length about his love for his country, and later embeds with troops in Afghanistan.


What the film doesn't have a lot of, though, are answers. If Spurlock has an opinion about how, exactly, America should have responded to the 9/11 attacks, he doesn't share it in the film.


The film is at its best when Spurlock is talking to people in these countries, and actually draws a lot of distinctions between people from different nations especially how free, say, Jordan is as opposed to Saudi Arabia. (In one scene, Saudi officials demand he turn off his camera.) The movie is at its worst, though, with jokey cartoons and graphics, as exemplified by a video game simulation in which the filmmaker and Bin Laden fight one another.


In the Q&A after the screening, I asked Spurlock what he would have done if, prior to the release of film, Bin Laden had been captured or killed. He responded that while rumors of a capture had spread right after he started shooting, it was never really much of a concern.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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