Sunday, March 16, 2008

Preview Review: Where in the World in Osama Bin Laden?

I saw a preview screening of this film last week. Things might change before the release in April but I doubt it. It is the first documentary I've seen as a preview screening even though I've been too dozens of them. I think I saw it because I loved Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as a kid. And now for the review.

Poster via Cinematical.

In Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, Morgan Spurlock (director and star of Super Size Me) uses the occasion of the upcoming birth of his first child as a launching point to go on a hunt for the most sought after fugitive in the world, and the most widely recognizable face of the war on terror.

The film begins with a humorous animated introduction and voiceover that lays the groundwork for the trip. Spurlock wants to make the world safer for his soon-to-arrive newborn by finding Bin Laden. This is the first in a series of disarming moments that allows the film to constantly entertain even while seeing the worst in people and the saddest circumstances. The most memorable part of this animated introduction is a Mortal Kombat like animated battle sequence between Spurlock and Bin Laden, full of humorous fight moves including a Spurlock’s flipping attack using his recognizable facial hair as a weapon. Spurlock is winking to the young audience he is trying to reach out to with his film. It’s like putting candy coating over the apple so a kid will at least eat the fruit.

The US government has plowed billions of dollars in man power have not been able to find Osama so how is one schlub from the Lower East Side of Manhattan supposed to find him. But conversely, you have belief that Spurlock will try his hardest to do what he is setting out to do and that maybe, by some miracle, he’ll just stumble over him. The most important thing Spurlock does with his film is avoid Iraq and focus on the man that got America into the mess. He avoids any damper on the audience with the touchy Iraqi quandary. He places the focus on one recognizable villain that the whole audience can agree is the epitome of evil and most be sought out to pay for his horrific plots.

Spurlock’s storytelling style rides on his shoulders to lead the documentary narrative. He puts himself in the story like a color commentary in a sporting event. He makes himself the centerpiece of the adventure. That is the key divergence in Where in the World. It separates itself from the standard documentary that usually bores the average audience to tears, that is if they ever actually see the film. He uses his average man, biker-like appearance complete with handlebar mustache to make himself non-threatening and engaging. It alleviates the audience from thinking that they are going to be bombarded with one sided opinion or that the film will be so complicated that it will go over their heads.

Before he goes overseas on his adventure, Spurlock has a humorous visit to the doctor which is a nod to the multitude of health checks that he had to go through during the film of his last film, Super Size Me. The doctor tells him of a litany of shots that he has to go through to travel through the Middle East. He follows that up with an amusing segment of over the top training techniques for protecting yourself in a war zone, like how to properly dive away from a grenade and how to figure out where a sniper might be shooting from. These might not seem like funny activities but watching Spurlock do them makes it funny, not to mention that he found the perfect semi-off-kilter instructor to guide him. In the most memorable scene of this section, the instructor and his men show Spurlock how he should act in case he is kidnapped and held for ransom.

Where in the World is a beginner’s course into the thought process of the people in the Middle East in regards to America and the basic conflicts that are imbedded in the region. Places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Israel are places that the average viewer knows is beat up, war trodden region with Islamic terrorists and extremists. Osama film brings the average people to the forefront, the moderate majority that doesn’t much air time because they are not as intriguing as the threatening vision of extremists that haunt this nation since the 9/11 terror attacks.

The encounters with the articulate average folk interspersed with highly informative interviews with experts in the region are very effective. The interviews range from priests to reporters to political leaders but the most interesting scene is with a pair of school students in Saudi Arabia. These two high school age boys are chosen as representatives of the schools but are interviewed in the presence of the careful and critical eyes of the school headmasters. It is so interesting because of what they can’t and won’t say. These young men are so nervous that even their trained answers to standard questioning seems to be flummoxing. Obviously, they are not allowed to speak freely. After one question, one of the students seems to break slightly from the “party line” and quickly negates it. Sure enough, Spurlock’s next broaches the subject of the state of Israel and the headmasters angrily step in and end the interview.

A second interesting encounter occurs when Spurlock hits the streets of Israel and enters a Hasidic area and tries to pose some questions to the men on the street. First, he is ignored. Then he is berated. Soon, one raving man tells him that he should not be here and he should go. He is quickly surrounded by a mob of black coats and top hats. While this may not be considered a general reaction, it shows a level of distrust and secrecy in the group and their inability to deal civilly with outsiders. A local cop comes in to stop the brouhaha but it does not stop before this very angry move shoves the police officer. It is just the other side’s way of reacting to their media treatment and their desire to keep whatever opinions they have to themselves.

Spurlock also visits an army base where he takes a tour around Afghanistan. The soldiers let him fire weapons on the training sites and even take him to visit the locals in an area occupied mostly by the Taliban. It seems like Spurlock got a nice amount of cooperation from the US Government in order to tag along through these areas. His attempt to visit with the locals is interrupted by some hairy moments when the soldiers tell him that they are hearing reports that the Taliban may be on their way to the area. This is not the only highly hostile area Spurlock visits. The film has a very enlightening segment on the fight over the West Bank as well.

One advantageous editing choice made for the film is that the interviews are shown in full and don’t go back and forth, section by section, like many documentaries.It allows you to easier get the full feeling and story of each person speaking. Spurlock seems to ask very similar questions throughout to accrue comparative answers that allow the audience to see the variance of opinions on a range of topics. But many topics have a consensus, especially the US. Most answer that they hate the country but not the people in it, which is understandable. They are very open for the most part with their feelings and seem genuinely interested in answering the questions.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden is the perfect package of pop Middle East information, flowing evenly in under 90 minutes, perfect for the modern attention span. Best of all, people will enjoy it and think about it. They won’t walk out overburdened with facts and opinions.They will empathize with the people in these nations, the people in the middle of conflicts that they personally did not cause. And most of all, it makes you realize how good we have it in America. The Towers may have come down but we don’t live in a War Zone even if the Bush administration might insinuate that at times.

1 comment:

patrick said...

Morgan Spurlock never ceases to impress me... i just saw Super Size Me, which was amazingly insightful, and now he's making a documentary that investigates the war on terrorism? well done indeed