May 19-25th 2008
After taking on McDonald’s, documentary maker Morgan Spurlock turns his sights on more elusive prey in new film Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? But who’s really the star of the film? Spurlock defends charges of hogging the limelight and dumbing down his work to Leigh Singer.
It’s hard not to like Morgan Spurlock. With his ready wit, easy smile and smart Everyman persona, this is the guy who effectively took on a giant corporation in his 2004 first-person, McDonald’s-only-diet documentary Super Size Me and won (the fast-food behemoth withdrew its Super Size portions shortly after Spurlock’s film clogged up its PR arteries). Which makes his new venture Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? somewhat problematic.
Fashioning himself as a Hollywood lone hero, and the whole War on Terror as a giant computer game – early CGI scenes have Spurlock facing off Streetfighter-style against Osama, lassoing him with his trademark handlebar moustache before the wanted Al-Qaeda kingpin escapes - what follows is Spurlock’s tour of Islamic and Middle Eastern hot spots. Ostensibly searching – but not too hard - for Bin Laden, he instead concentrates on doling out a primer on current geo-politics, what hostile US reviewers have called “’The Post 9/11 World for Dummies.’”
Unsurprisingly, Spurlock himself has a different take. “I really try and break out of making films that preach to the choir,” counters Spurlock. “Super Size Me was seen by a lot of people who’d never seen a documentary in their life, so for me the goal was to still try and hit that audience, high school-age kids, college-age kids, young adults. If I can make a movie that can bridge those demographics, that’s ultimately what I’d love to happen.”
More appealing than the hectoring Michael Moore, Spurlock’s impulses are part-educator, part-showman. While it’s true that mocking up Osama Bin Laden as MC Hammer might attract a younger crowd to a serious subject, it’s the PR-heavy nature of the project that feels phony. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the secrecy surrounding Spurlock’s then Untitled project lead to wild speculation that he’d actually done what the US government had failed to do for seven years and tracked Bin Laden down, a ruse Spurlock and his team were all too happy to play up.
So did he ever seriously entertain the idea of actually capturing his purported quarry? “It’s one of those things like Willy Wonka, you know, the Golden Ticket,” he muses. “We always had this tiny glimpse of hope, like when somebody buys a lottery ticket. It’s a million-to-one odds but you might be the one able to do this. But as we got further along, you start to realise that it’s not just about him.”
Sceptics would say the film was never about Bin Laden as much as about Spurlock himself. Discovering he was to become a father in early pre-production, the film is structured as a quest to complete before his wife Alex gives birth to their first child.
“For me that’s the moment where the idea for the film was really born,” Spurlock says passionately. “It became much more personal after I found out Alex was pregnant, it wasn’t just about where is Osama but what kind of a world am I about to bring a kid into? And that journey shaped a lot of the choices that we made. I decided to meet people like me who have kids, what do they think about the situation?”
Leave aside the headline-grabbing title (and dreadful poster of a cartoonish, camel-racing Spurlock) and this facet is the film’s strongest point. As Spurlock tours around, he invariably meets ordinary individuals and families from Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of whom declare as much distaste for Al-Qaeda as they do for current US foreign policy. It was Spurlock’s biggest and best surprise.
“I went in with a lot of preconceived notions that I was going to be met with much more hostility, much more standoffishness,” he confesses. “And it just was not the case. People were happy to sit down and talk about how they felt about what was going on. For me that’s the best part of the movie.”
It’s certainly the most genuine, which is more than can be said for Spurlock goofing off, peering into the Tora Bora caves with a cheery “Yoo-hoo, Osama?” There are some sobering interludes: in Israel, Hassidic Jews physically force him and his camera team to leave the area; in another, a stilted, stage-managed interview with two Saudi Arabian students is curtailed when the questioning gets even vaguely contentious. And yet there’s still ‘video game Osama’…
In some respects this film is least representative of Spurlock’s output. Unlike genuinely endangering his health with a burger-and-fries diet, or taking on the challenges in his 30 Days TV show (in the pilot, he and Alex try living on minimum wage for a month), there’s little genuine risk or revelation in Where in the World… But then Spurlock has always striven, while putting his persona centre-stage, to leave his personal preferences hidden in the wings.
“It would have been really easy to jump on a Bush-bash bandwagon,” he agrees. “I try to remain as apolitical as possible about most things. I’m not somebody who likes to be told what to do, as Alex would tell you. I like people to watch a film or our TV show and walk away with their own interpretation. Then it becomes personal.”
Ultimately, for all the broad, sometimes buffoonish, attempts to make Morgan Spurlock his own populist brand, he does speak to a large swathe of common (US) perception - or lack of it. As much as more motivated spectators may yearn for harder-hitting bulletins, if a grass-roots movement is desired, he argues, perhaps one needs to sow some very basic seeds.
“I met [foreign] people whom I was the first American they’d ever shaken hands with,” Spurlock reports. “I’m leaving somebody’s house and he grabs me by the hand and says ‘are there more Americans like you out there?’ and I said there are millions of Americans like me. So to be able to sit down and be able to have a conversation with someone and that notion starts to get chipped away, that’s a good thing.”
Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is out May 9th.