Dispatches from Tribeca: Alex Gibney’s Other (Other) Documentary

After Alex Gibney’s untitled and unfinished Eliot Spitzer documentary—inevitably using the working title of Client 9—premiered to raves on Saturday night, My Trip to Al-Qaeda might feel like an afterthought. For one thing, Al-Qaeda is already ticketed for cable—HBO picked it up and plans to premiere it in the fall—and for another, it isn’t nearly as sexy as the sordid tales of a disgraced former governor. But it’s nothing less than harrowing.

Based on journalist Lawrence Wright’s one-man play of his best seller, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11—which you might remember as the one book Sarah Palin copped to reading when questioned by Katie Couric—My Trip to Al-Qaeda delves into the tangled web of politics and fanaticism behind not just the September 11 attacks, but how the West relates to Muslim culture in general. He even finds time to paint Osama bin Laden as the first great screenwriter of the 21st century, a monster crafting a narrative of America’s coming ruin that began with the fall of the Twin Towers. It’s all very Shakespearean in its tragedy.

Kudos to Gibney for taking what is ostensibly an audio book and livening things up a bit. Wright’s stage play recounts his experiences researching The Looming Tower, and as thrilling as it all is, the author uses a tone and manner that’s reminiscent of a Middle Eastern Studies professor: a riveting speaker and narrator he is not. But in his reporting and Gibney’s meticulous editing, My Trip to Al-Qaeda comes to life. Toward the end, while Wright discusses the various atrocities that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda has perpetrated on innocents around the world—including many Muslims—Gibney cuts together a montage of news footage that recalls the heart-stopping quality of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Like that film—and despite some inherent limitations—My Trip to Al-Qaeda is unsettling, incisive and downright scary. Just don’t expect to leave feeling good about the future.