Television review: ‘My Trip to Al-Qaeda’

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I am a huge fan and general admirer of journalist Lawrence Wright, who is one of those people who actually do the kind of work so many of us, in the reproachful hours of the early morning or after that fifth beer, regretfully dream of doing. In the wake of 9/11, he wanted to understand what happened and why, but unlike most of us, he went looking for answers where they actually might be found.

That he had spent time in the Middle East, that he had in fact, co-written a movie (“The Siege”) that certainly prefaced, if not predicted, the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made this a little easier, but still he did the work, years of work, wonderful work, that appeared in the pages of the New Yorker and in Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

Three years ago he took the story of writing that book to the stage, starring in the one-man play “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” and now Alex Gibney, using some of that show, news clips and interviews with Wright as subject and interviewer, has made a documentary by the same name that premieres Tuesday on HBO.

“My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is almost unforgivably thought provoking — one comes away from it feeling if not pity for the members of Al Qaeda than at least a better understanding of how human beings could dedicate themselves to such hate-filled bloodshed. Wright takes a very hard, non-p.c. line on Islam as a sociopolitical tool in the Middle East. He fulminates at intelligent Saudis who nonetheless swallow conspiracy theories without question and is indignant over a female Saudi reporter’s refusal to acknowledge the sexism of a society that would choose a burning death in school for a young girl rather than have her be seen without her traditional over-garments.

Indeed, Wright argues Al Qaeda’s driving force is a hatred of life and a love of death. Neither Osama bin Laden nor any of his acolytes have a plan for the future because they do not really believe in a future. Oppressed not so much by Western corruption as a life controlled by so many rigid outside forces — from the Saudi royal family to the life-denying strictures of extreme Islam — death become an acceptable, even desirable, alternative to a world in which virtually all earthly pleasure is forbidden and a culture of victimized paranoia is embraced.

The second half of the film, in which he comes to this conclusion, is much more powerful than the first. The opening suffers from a confusion over what exact story “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is trying to tell — the story of Al Qaeda? The story of Wright’s experience as a journalist before and after 9 /11? A contemplation on the dangers of theocracy in general? Neither Wright nor Gibney err on the side of oversimplification, which is admirable, but Wright’s presence, especially the scenes of his play, become more distracting than helpful.

There’s also no getting around the fact that one of the thoughts provoked by “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” is how unfortunate it is that Wright chose to play himself in his one-man show. He is a writer, not an actor, and while some writers have commanding stage presence, Wright does not, particularly. There’s a staginess to the clips from the play that undermines the power, and the sincerity, of Wright’s words as he speaks them. This is particularly apparent when he’s talking about the role “The Siege” played in international events, his responsibility as a journalist versus as a citizen, and his frustration at his inability to figure out his sources — it all seems self-aggrandizing, something it probably wouldn’t appear to be in print.

Seeing Wright doing what he does for a living — interviewing former terrorists including Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, or just talking about all he has learned along the way — is much more effective. There is no doubt that Wright has terrific and hard-won insight into Al Qaeda, but drama is a distillation process, not a survey course, and the monologue is usually not a reporter’s most effective weapon. That’s why God created actors.