A sobering lecture on the Middle East as well as an interesting exercise in multimedia, “My Trip to al-Qaeda” is director Alex Gibney’s documentary version of Lawrence Wright’s off-Broadway one-man show, developed while researching his book “The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” With his understated style and soothing voice, Wright offers a savvy primer on the roots of Islamic terrorism and the U.S.’ misguided response, while the filmed performance stylistically recalls a more restrained variant on Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia.”
Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) uses part of Wright’s play, while embellishing it with more conventional documentary elements, including interviews conducted by the journalist, TV footage and video of Wright preparing for the show. What emerges is a piece that seeks to convey the root causes of fundamentalist Muslims’ anger toward the West without apologizing for the barbaric nature of terrorism — a fine line, given how polarized the debate has become.
The most informative portion deals with the repressive climate in Saudi Arabia, where, Wright says, there are “royal highnesses and ordinary highnesses, and everybody else.” He calls it a country “over-ripe for revolution,” noting how Middle East jails and torture transformed intellectuals into radical jihadists.
Politically, Wright won’t win over many conservatives. He recalls watching events unfold simultaneously on Fox News Channel and Al-Jazeera — “two rather similar news organizations,” he suggests, in that each is “wedded to a particular narrative.”
Yet those narratives underscore the cultural disconnect that exists — one committed to seeing America as an unerring force for good, the other preoccupied with perceived humiliation heaped on Muslims by U.S. foreign policy.
Having taught at American U. in Cairo, Wright approaches his topic with a sense of world-weary hopelessness. For those who have paid attention to U.S. missteps in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, relatively little here will be new, but it’s an effective distillation of key points that shed light on a region where, as Wright puts it, “Change does not equal progress.”
Progress, however, can only start with understanding, and HBO’s documentary arm has again made a significant contribution to the TV conversation. It’s only too bad that those who ought to hear it are the most likely to tune it out.