Bin Laden or Bust

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By Peter Bergen,
a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know"
Thursday, May 8, 2008

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?

By Morgan Spurlock

Random House. 304 pp. $25

(Film by the Weinstein Co.)

Dude! What a rad plan! Kicking back over drinks at Bungalow 8, the hard-to-get-into Manhattan nightclub, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock hatched the idea of a humorous documentary and book about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Your average auteur would wake up the next morning back in his Brooklyn crib, reach for the Advil and realize that searching for the largest mass murderer in U.S. history is about as funny as a pounding hangover.

But Spurlock is not an auteur easily deterred. He made his name with "Super Size Me," the 2004 documentary in which he ate nothing but Mickey D's, watched his health collapse and shone some light on the fast-food business. This time, Spurlock chose bigger McNuggets to fry -- not only the hunt for al-Qaeda's leader but also a personal search to understand the Muslim world. And so, in the fall of 2006, he set off to look for bin Laden, a journey that took him from the Muslim ghettos of northern England to Afghanistan, with a few stops in between.

His insights are as standard as a Happy Meal: The U.S. government is not loved around the Islamic world, though most Muslims like Americans; peace for Palestinians and Israelis is going to be a long time coming; Egypt isn't really a democracy; Saudi Arabia is repressive and Westernized at the same time; Afghanistan is dangerous.

Spurlock's musings read like the interminable blog of a pampered college kid on an all-expenses-paid trip around the Middle East and South Asia. The documentary is even worse, as Spurlock is constantly on camera delivering the same platitudes, a supersized display of narcissism that makes Michael Moore's on-screen preenings look like those of a Trappist monk.

Okay, perhaps Spurlock can't reasonably be expected to deliver new or surprising information about the Muslim world. Maybe the book/documentary is witty in a "Springtime for Hitler" sort of way?

Nope. Spurlock's humor is the kind of material your tipsy uncle foists on the family at Thanksgiving: "I looked for Osama all over Cairo. I looked for him at the Pyramids. I looked for him at the Sphinx. Why not? A lot of people will think he sphinx." Ba-da boom!

The filmmaker's quest for bin Laden has all the suspense of a trip to the dry cleaners, as it's painfully obvious that Spurlock never got anywhere close to the man with a $50 million reward on his head. Apparently, he never spoke to anyone in bin Laden's massive family, or to any of his many friends, acquaintances or former employees, either.

But the most insulting aspect of the book/documentary is the pretense that Spurlock has done something dangerous. In Kabul, he was asleep in the Gandamak guesthouse when, horrifyingly, "Someone banged on the door. . . . When a stranger comes knocking in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, you react much as I did -- heart pounding, instantly awake and sweating, breathing heavily and a little freaked out. . . . I tried to radio to AJ, my security adviser, but my walkie was dead."

That was the nearest Spurlock came to any danger on his reporting trip: a non-encounter (he didn't open the door), probably with someone from the Gandamak bar who had had one too many. In the documentary, Spurlock also gets pushed around in Jerusalem by an elderly Orthodox Jew annoyed by his inane questions. Spurlock keeps saying his trip is "scary," which it would be if your definition of scary involves Hasidim shouting at you.

A moment finally comes in both the book and the movie when Spurlock's earlier training in the United States about how to operate in a hostile environment might have come in handy. After driving west from Peshawar, he prepares to enter the Pakistani border region where bin Laden is generally believed to be hiding. But then Spurlock wimps out, saying into the camera, "It's not worth it."

That is surely going to be the reaction of most people who wade through this book or sit through the film. What's mysterious is why a publisher like Random House or savvy producers like the Weinsteins didn't suss this out. It's a feat to pen the thinnest nonfiction book of the year or to direct the lamest documentary; Spurlock somehow has managed to pull off both. Next time the doorman lets him into Bungalow 8, it should be on condition that he drink enough to forget any bright ideas he might have there.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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