Friday, February 1, 2008


There was a recent news article in USA Today that I found morbidly fascinating: "An Economy Grows Around Britney Spears". Britney in turmoil is good business for magazine publishers, websites, photographers, comedians, ect. and while it's amusing it's also very, very sad, as you have a lot of people who should know better profiting off of someone's downfall. But what's even sadder still is the business of 9/11, people who have taken one of the worst days in history and are working it for their own financial gain. If you go down Church St., Broadway or West Broadway in NYC (down to the construction site known as "Ground Zero") you'll encounter folks selling World Trade Center postcards, 9/11 memorial glass etchings, NYPD hats and all other kinds of paraphernalia, the sales of which are almost most certainly not going to the families of the victims of September 11, 2001. On top of that are the countless books, websites, forums, doohickeys and whatzits devoted either to the events of that day, the events leading up to that day, the events following that day, or just the WTC itself that can make your head spin. Living and working in the NY/NJ area, I see plenty of 9/11 signs and bumper stickers that say "Never Forget", as if the publishing industry alone (must less the bumper sticker industry) would ever in a million years let us black it out of our memories.

Worse still are the 9/11 documentaries, many of them homemade, low-budget affairs which must now number in the hundreds that take every conceivable point of view imaginable: Conspiracy (LOOSE CHANGE), conspiracy debunking, tribute to heroes, the events of 9/11 (9/11), first step in the new world order (TERRORSTORM), it's more than enough to make you sick. I'm the first to admit that there are a lot of unanswered questions from that day and no one questions that what happened wasn't a terrible thing, but after a certain point you simply can't listen to any more theories. What happened happened and as awful as it was, this blame game is simply becoming too much. Bush won't be President this time next year (thank goodness), so let's focus on cleaning up his mess and figure out whether or not we're going to string him up later.

I'm sorry, I'm ranting. I do that.

Anyway, the latest of the 9/11 docs (although I'm sure the filmmakers wouldn't call it that) is Morgan Spurlock's WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, which premiered last week at Sundance. More so than any other documentary since FAHRENHEIT 9/11, WHERE IN THE WORLD... stands a good shot at reaching the masses thanks to Spurlock's previous doco hit, SUPER SIZE ME, and this film's more genial, "Why can't we be friends" attitude. There was a bit of buzz (even some excitement) over the secrecy behind it, that there might actually be some kind of major revelation, either that Spurlock actually found Bin Laden or that he uncovered some kind of giant scoop about the war on terror. Well, it's not giving anything away to say that nothing like that happens in WITW; in fact, the most significant thing that happens here is the on-camera birth of Spurlock's son, which is a lovely, beautiful thing, but not really what most folks are coming to see, unless you've got a thing for pregnant ladies, in which case I can think of at least one ticket sold.

Spurlock's extremely flimsy premise is that he's about to become a father and in order to make sure his son grows up in a world of peace and harmony, he must find and capture Osama Bin Laden. This is Spurlock's hook, but it's not what the film is really about; he spends a nominal amount of time on the actual search and more on the cause and rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the world today. There are plenty of "person on the street" interviews with lots of common folk throughout the Middle East, most of whom are good people who hate the current U.S. policies but not the American people, dislike Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and want to make it clear that most Muslims are not radicals. Spurlock visits Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and tries to show that for all of our differences in cultures and religions, people are pretty much the same everywhere you go. And again, that's fine, it's nice, but it's not a real movie if you ask me. You've got a pretty serious topic that's being treated with kid gloves, and while it's occasionally enlightening and amusing, there's no depth to this. When I watch a CNN documentary with Christiane Amanpuor or Anderson Cooper I usually see something far more substantial than this, and when you're discussing this subject matter, it's the right approach, too. The old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time is always apt, and I'm sure that there's a great, DR. STRANGELOVE-esqe comedy to be made from the war of terror, but Spurlock's not the person to do it. You either go about this with knives sharpened or not at all; there is a wealth of material at hand, but it requires no-holds-barred satirical genius to make it work.

This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its moments. The best part is Spurlock in Afghanistan with U.S. troops in Taliban territory and those moments, when you're actually on the front lines of the war on terror and in some dangerous spots, is when the film is its most interesting. He also makes it clear that it's as much about winning hearts and minds more than blowing things up; one Afghan complains that farming is impossible because the U.S. bases have taken up much of their local water supply and villages that were destroyed years ago have yet to be rebuilt. There's a "no wonder they hate us" feeling you get, but it's also the only time the film is able to provide some kind of possible solution to winning the war of terror, and our government's inaction in this area is perhaps the most shameful thing of all. But that's the only moment of any real insight that WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LDEN is able to grant its audience. Otherwise, it's merely a snarky, self-satisfied piece of fluff and not what I wanted to see. I wasn't expecting miracles from Spurlock, but something more respectful to the situation at hand seemed to be more fitting.

The poster art, on the other hand, is fantastic.

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