What would it take to draw people into a documentary about the post-9/11 world? Here are a few things that, by now, probably won’t work: intricate layered craftsmanship; a spirit of inquiry; an excavation of the lies that have trickled down from the top levels of American power; a look at the devastation (torture, maimed soldiers, grieving families) on the ground; disturbing doses of information, outrage, truth. Nope, that’s been done, and it hasn’t gotten far. Enter Morgan Spurlock, who in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? tries a different tack. In his first film since Super Size Me, Spurlock tells you virtually nothing you didn’t already know — and, what’s more, he does it with catchy videogame graphics (Osama boogying to ”U Can’t Touch This”) and faux-naive man-on-the-street interviews that make Michael Moore look like Chet Huntley. The movie, in other words, is so glib and shallow and facile it just might work at the box office.
Where in the World isn’t really about the hunt for bin Laden. Once you get past the title, it’s little more than a feeble, once-over-lightly tour of the Middle East, as Spurlock — now an expectant daddy fretting over the state of the world — pays visits to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, trying to suss out the feelings of the citizens there. Did you know that the war in Iraq has been a boon to al-Qaeda? That a lot of folks in Arab Muslim countries have no beef with ordinary Americans but deplore our government? That Saudi Arabia limits freedoms on speech, women’s dress, and religion? These and other shattering insights are offered up as if they were news; Spurlock’s gaga investigative zeal makes him come off here like a boob who spends too much time at the health-food store and not enough time reading the papers. When a bunch of Hasidim on a Jerusalem sidewalk start yelling at him to go home, and he’s forced to scurry for cover, his attitude is at once smug and starry-eyed, sealed with a Can’t we all get along? shrug. A primer no one needed, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? should have been called The Post-9/11 World for Dummies.
In Standard Operating Procedure, the latest from Errol Morris (The Fog of War), we see those grinning, thumbs-up American soldiers from the Abu Ghraib photographs — like Lynndie England — explain themselves with a potent sense of what was expected of them from the powers above: to ”soften up” prisoners for the real torture to follow. Morris, using a welter of photographs (many of which we haven’t seen), constructs a day-to-day sense of how Abu Ghraib descended into a medieval hell. He reveals the institutionalized fear, the pornographic license that ruled a prison where degradation became the blinkered language of American payback. The most chilling thing about the film, however, is how hard it is to completely separate yourself from those guilty U.S. soldiers. Now who in the world would want to go see that? Where in the World: C-; Standard Operating Procedure: A-