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My Trip To Al-Qaeda - Movie Review

From Stage Show To Documentary Film

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My Trip To Al-Qaeda - Movie Review

Lawrence Wright and Osama Bin Laden

Jigsaw Pictures/HBO
While documenting journalist Lawrence Wright’s one-man play, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, filmmaker Alex Gibney takes us beyond the confines of the stage presentation, and into locations where the writer/performer discovered and wrangled with the material, the ideas and interpretations he first presented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower,“ and then adapted into his Off-Broadway hit.

Film In The Stage Show And The Stage Show In Film

In the stage show that's being documented on film, Wright uses film clips to illustrate important moments in his narrative and thesis about the impact of terrorism on America and Americans. There is, for example, tape of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers. He shows simultaneous reports from the vastly different perspectives of Fox News and Al Jazeera showing the same incident in which American troops searched an Iraqi home.

And, he shows clips of The Seige, the 1998 fiction feature film that Wright penned, projecting how America might react in response to acts of terrorism. In the film (which was, by the way, the number one DVD rental in the aftermath of 9/11), star Denzel Washington expounds that Americans must not respond to terrorist acts by declaring martial law, because in curtailing civil liberties, Americans lose the very rights and values we're fighting to preserve.

Gibney's task in My Trip To Al-Qaeda was not unlike that of Davis Guggenheim in making the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth(2006). Both transform one-man performances into documentaries. In taking us beyond the stage show, Gibney films Wright in his office in Texas, and follows him as he does research and interviews people in Saudi Arabia and other places. Additionally, Gibney uses clips of American troops, Afghan troops, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and cohorts, US Congressional hearings, Dick Cheney, Bush the Father and Bush the Son.

A Solidly Complementary Collaboration

The archival footage is so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the documentary, it isn't always clear which clips are taken from the stage play and which are the filmmaker's augmentation. But that doesn't really matter. Wright is credited as the writer of the documentary, so there is clearly no misrepresentation of intent in the film. In fact, the collaboration between Gibney and Wright seems solidly complementary.

Wright is a quite a compelling presence. He explains that his determination to know more about Al-Qaeda rose out of the ashes of the twin towers and his need to understand what was thought to be, in some way, his prophecy. He immediately establishes his ongoing interest in Islamic culture by taking us to Egypt, where he'd once taught English in a school that was attended, albeit not at the same time, by Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 terrorists.

Throughout the film, Wright and Gibney trace for us the origins of Al-Qaeda and the ascent of Osama bin Laden. The information is important. But, as the documentary progresses, we see that the film's central character is neither Al-Qaeda nor Osama bin Laden--nor, for that matter, Wright--but America itself. And the central issue is not how America will win the war on terrorism, but how terrorism may transform the nature of the nation. The prospects are, indeed, terrifying.

The Film's Theme And Thesis

The theme is one that Gibney has addressed before, most notably in Taxi To The Dark Side, a compelling indictment about torturous interrogation methods used by US soldiers on imprisoned alleged terrorists.

In My Trip To Al-Qaeda, Wright concludes that Al-Qaeda can't destroy America--only we can do that--to ourselves."There's a hole inside us. It's a black hole. The country that we were is being sucked inside," says Wright. "Al-Qaeda can't do that. Only we can do that to ourselves."

This powerful thesis, presented in a well-researched, informative and completely gripping documentary, will challenge you to delve deeper into your own thoughts about the nature of our democratic government and process, and about our personal responsibilities as citizens.

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Film Details:

  • Title: My Trip To Al-Aaeda
  • Director: Alex Gibney
  • Release Date on HBO: September 7, 2010
  • Running Time: 86 mins.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, including descriptions of violence
  • Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
  • Location: USA, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia
  • Language: English
  • Production Company: Jigsaw Productions
  • Distribution: HBO Documentaries
  • Official Website

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