“I’m not looking for trouble. I’m looking for an answer,” proclaims documentary raconteur Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) on his semi-serious hunt for America’s Most Wanted. But the question isn’t the one prompted by the title. Spurlock wanders from Egypt to Morocco to Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan asking locals where is Osama, but what he’s really sleuthing out is how did Osama exist at all? The answer is obvious: Bitterness about education, health, and employment. They don’t hate our freedoms, they hate their oppression, and it’s often our government that propped their dictators in place. What’s surprising is to hear the average Middle Easterner confirm what the blogosphere’s been shouting since 9/12. We’re not so different after all!
That’s Spurlock’s closing revelation, and it rings cornball and trite as does the frame for his trip. He’s months away from becoming a father and resolved to rid the world of terror before baby Spurlock pops out during an eco-dorable water birth. Wife Alexandra makes him promise to return home to Manhattan before the delivery and is a casual presence via home video shots of her Lamaze class. If her presence, and not just her physique, was larger, the device would have felt more honest. I learned for just one sound bite of her griping “I’m eight months pregnant and alone while you’re trilling ‘Yoo-hoo! Osama?’ in a cave in Tora Bora.”
“Anybody who buys a lottery ticket doesn’t buy one saying, ‘I am not going to win,’” said Spurlock to the New York Times when asked if he really thought he’d find Bin Laden. He gulps when villagers in a remote Taliban-controlled town on the edge of Afghanistan point to the mountains and say he’s up there. But largely, the Osama his film captures is similar to the one foisted upon us by the media: a 2-D villain straight from a kill ’em all video game. Only Spurlock’s is dancing to “U Can’t Touch This” in front of a row of mujahideens earnestly doing the Roger Rabbit. After a spate of pretentious, sentimental, and didactic war flicks, it’s a nice break to hear one quip that “Maybe Osama’s on dialysis . . . or maybe he’s a nine-foot ninja emitting laser beams!” Cheeky, yes, but what’s the difference between him putting Zarqawi on a baseball card and our military slapping Saddam on the Ace of Spades?
Before embarking on his quest, Spurlock does what he does best: Punishing his body for our amusement. First, he’s shot up with vaccinations for a dozen deadly diseases. Next, under an intensive self-defense expert, he prepares his lanky physique for action hero stardom (after all, he notes, Bruce Willis has taught us time and again that one rebel can rid the world of evil.) Spurlock learns how to survive a kidnapping (shut up) and where to sit in a targeted café (almost nowhere). That we never see him duck a punch let alone gauge a sniper’s hideout is a disappointment, but at least the sequence caps off with a heavy metal training montage where every lyric—triumph! pain! winning! chumps!—could be on the inspirational poster of a middle manager. One beard, a few language lessons, and a skim through Islam for Dummies and he’s off for parts uncertain.
The documentary blossoms on the road. We learn that Moroccans fear their children falling in with a terrorist crowd just as 1950’s parents fretted their daughters were hanging with greasers. We learn that Palestinians are frustrated and aware that Islamic activists are only using their struggle as an excuse (if they truly cared, they’d send food not blow up markets in Baghdad). We learn that ten times a day in Jerusalem, a cute Johnny 5 clone detonates suspicious packages, which sometimes contain bikini bottoms. We learn from Zarqawi’s former pen pal that the US is playing right into Al Qaida’s hands. We learn that in Saudi Arabia, a photo of Posh Spice’s shoulder is forbidden, but Starbucks is thriving. We learn that the Afghan poor can’t get UN tents unless they buy them on the black market and that seven years after the invasion, their children are still studying in the bombed-out skeletons of schools. But in a sign of hope, we learn that even so, most Middle Easterners draw a distinction between the United States’ government and the United States’ people. As one terrorist tells Spurlock, he still wants to destroy America, but would like it if Spurlock and his family—and maybe even us if we shared a meal with him—weren’t in the crossfire.