Your reaction to “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” will probably depend on your feelings about its high-profile maker (and effective star), Morgan Spurlock. As a serious consideration of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the jihadists it’s spawned, the movie is negligible. As a kind of stand-up act, though, it allows Spurlock to do his now-familiar shtick. If you found his previous self-promoting outings, on the big screen and the tube, ingratiating, you may enjoy his ramble through the Middle East in search of answers to some basic facts about the war on terror. If not, you’ll probably find it a self-indulgent annoyance.
The picture starts with Spurlock musing on the lack of safety in the world for the child he and his wife are expecting, and decides to go off to find Osama bin Laden, supposedly the cause of all the overwhelming insecurity. He assumes (or merely exudes) an attitude of naïve ignorance as he travels from place to place in the Middle East (Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territory, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to question locals for clues about his quarry’s ideas and whereabouts. While he does encounter a relative of bin Laden who pretty much champions his methods, most of the “regular folk” he meets along the way turn out to be—surprise, surprise—very much like all of us, people just trying to make do in difficult circumstances, who may dislike the American government but very much like the American people. (We learn that a lot of them are devotees of professional wrestling, too!) There are a few cases where people simply refuse to talk—most notably the residents of a Hasidic neighborhood in Israel, who drive Spurlock away. But even there others quietly tell him that the meanies are a minority. So the message ultimately comes down to the rather simplistic realization that it’s a small world after all, and people are alike all over.
As for Spurlock himself, he so ably adopts the pose of a person who’s almost completely uninformed about the regions that he visits that you begin to wonder whether it’s a pose at all. And you might find that impression confirmed by his decision to use, periodically, animated sequences featuring himself and bin Laden as the combatants in a video game.
To be fair, there are a few moments in the picture that hit home. A visit to a bombed-out schoolroom is strong (though even here Spurlock’s observations are hardly deep), and an Afghan sequence that’s cut short when the American troops with which he’s traveling are abruptly called in for a real mission has some visceral punch. On the technical level, the film is reasonably good, especially given what must have been demanding conditions.
But one has a right to expect a bit more from a picture like this; the bemused superficiality of Spurlock’s approach is simply not enough. Wherever in the world Osama bin Laden might be, there’s very little of him—or much that’s serious or insightful—in this movie.