Where in the film is Osama bin Laden?

Reviewed by Dani Barley
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Running time 93 minutes

In his new film, Morgan Spurlock, director and star of the 2004 documentary film Super Size Me, looks at the camera and explains: “If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action movies, it’s that complicated global problems are best solved by one lonely guy.” Such is the premise of Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Spurlock, who famously gorged himself on nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 continuous days in Super Size Me, describes he latest film as a “funumentary”. Sadly, I’d describe it as a waste of a promising idea and 93 minutes of my time.

Spurred on by the announcement from his wife that she’s pregnant with their first child, Spurlock goes through the traditional emotions of impending parenthood — notably “how can I best protect my child?” Unlike most, however, he has access to funding and a film crew and decides to take on the pressing question of finding the world’s most wanted man. Despite an elaborate Mortal Kombat-inspired CGI fight scene between bin Laden and Spurlock, there isn’t actually that much time devoted to discussing bin Laden in the film.

Instead, Spurlock undergoes some survival training, learns a tiny bit of Arabic and begins to grow a beard, before traveling to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan. Once there, he spends some time speaking to the usual documentary suspects (academics, religious or political officials, and a relative of one of the 9/11 hijackers) and the rest of the time asking ordinary people on the street what they think of the US and if they know where bin Laden is. In similar fashion to Super Size Me, this footage is inter-cut with animated shorts providing much of the denser contextual information, clips of his wife as she progresses through her pregnancy back in New York and Spurlock performing a series of unscripted video confessionals as to his thoughts on the day’s events.

While his quirky style and dumbfounded honesty worked wonderfully in Super Size Me, here it’s almost painful to watch because he’s so clearly out of his depth. Instead, the film comes across as an amateur PR piece, which would only be useful for anyone who hasn’t paid any attention to what has been happening in the world since 9/11, Osama bin Laden or Washington’s Middle East foreign policy before and after 9/11 — but would that sort of person sit through a film like this? It does make you wonder just who Spurlock is pitching this film at. Anyone with a moment of interest and an internet connection could find the same information with just a few mouse clicks; so why he didn’t aim higher is anyone’s guess. Judging from the poor box office takings since the film’s US release in April (US$500,000 vs. $20 million in 2004 for Super Size Me), a lot of his core US audience felt the same way, despite this film being the most anticipated work to premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

One of Spurlock’s biggest oversights was failing to highlight the Bush administration’s own back flip on the hunt for bin Laden. Two days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George Bush was famously quoted as saying: “The most important thing for us is to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him.” Six days later, Bush added: “I want justice. There’s an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’.”

After US military forces had invaded Afghanistan, Bush’s mantra started to shift when he remarked from his Crawford, Texas ranch on December 28, 2001: “Listen, a while ago I said to the American people, our objective is more than bin Laden. But one of the things for certain is we’re going to get him running and keep him running, and bring him to justice. And that’s what’s happening. He’s on the run, if he’s running at all. So we don’t know whether he’s in a cave with the door shut, or a cave with the door open — we just don’t know.”

Three months later, on March 13, 2002, Bush declared: “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority. I am truly not that concerned about him.” The reason for the quick turnaround was, of course, because the administration had publicly revealed (in Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union speech) that the real targets of its “War on Terror” were oil-rich Iraq and Iran. Spurlock’s film makes no serious mention of this.

Spurlock neglects to cite the infamous series of documents from the Washington-based think-tank, the Project for a New American Century. The PNAC played a key role in promoting within US ruling circles the idea of invasion-driven “regime change” in Iraq (and the turning over of its oil resources to US oil corporations) as central to establishing US global political and economic domination in the 21st century. Among the leading figures of the late 1990s PNAC were key policy-makers in the Bush administration such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. (Despite the groundwork laid by the PNAC, no-one in the Bush administration would have had any success rallying US public opinion behind the Iraq invasion plan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Which is why the administration, on Colin Powel’s advice, decided to invade Afghanistan first — ostensibly to capture bin Laden.

Similarly glossed over in Spurlock’s film is the role of the CIA in the creation of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network — a product of the decade long, CIA-organised war against Soviet-backed Afghanistan’s secular leftist government that had come to power in an April 1978 popular uprising in Kabul. Spurlock makes a passing mention in an animated short about US sponsorship of dictatorial regimes when it suited US interests, but ignores even the most glaring of contradictions, such as US President Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 description of the CIA-armed and -trained Islamist contras in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Despite the fact these “freedom fighters” were led by landlords who made their money from opium production and fanatical misogynists, Washington and the pro-US Islamist despotic regime in Saudi Arabia supplied some US$6 billion worth of arms, training and funds to aid the Afghan mujaheedin (“holy warriors”) in their anti-leftist jihad. The goal was not just to force Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, but to create an environment receptive to the spread of anti-communist Islamic fanaticism throughout the Muslim world, including in Soviet Central Asia.

Spurlock also does little to illustrate the lies told about bin Laden’s links to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Mere months after Vice-President Cheney reasserted the “overwhelming” evidence linking the Hussein regime to al Qaeda, a 2004 article in the Washington Post reported that congressional “9/11 commission reported yesterday that it found no ‘collaborative relationship’ between Iraq and al Qaeda ... there had been contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda but no cooperation ... Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

I could go on and on with additional information left out of Spurlock’s film — if he had wanted to make a serious documentary on Osama bin Laden, the origins of his movement and those who helped him gain the influence he now maintains in parts of the world. But maybe that wasn’t really the point. Maybe Spurlock really set out to have a bit of fun before his familial responsibilities prevented him from such travels. (Or maybe he was just plum out of ideas and just bit off more than he could chew — even after a month-long Big Mac fest.) Whatever the reason, if you want some real information on “OBL” (as Spurlock refers to him in the film), you’re better off doing some simple research on your own. And if you’re looking for some fun at the cinema, you’d be better off seeing the late Heath Ledger at his creepiest (and best) in The Dark Knight. We can only hope that Spurlock’s next big idea won’t be bigger than his abilities as a filmmaker.