Dir: Alex Gibney. US. 2010. 86mins


Alex Gibney’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda retraces the steps of the author Lawrence Wright in a stage performance (of the same title) based on Wright’s book about the Islamic fundamentalists that he’s studied for more than a decade.

You may feel that you have visited much of this territory before, but never with so knowledgeable a guide.

In that journey, Wright, like Gore, examines America’s mis-steps as it underestimated and then attacked a global enemy.

Theatrical interest in the film about a play about a book is likely to be limited to festivals and arthouses, although Gibney’s Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) will give it a strong boost. An eventual HBO airing should give the documentary broad exposure in the war-fatigued US market, yet foreign broadcasters and cable operators may find the film general in its treatment of a much-reported subject and too American in its motivational crescendo.  

Alex Gibney’s documentaries tend to be character-driven, and in Lawrence Wright he has found quite a character. Wright wrote a much-respected history of Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. Before that, he co-scripted The Siege, the 1998 thriller in which the US suppresses civil liberties in response to a terrorist attack in New York. In earlier jobs, he coached would-be journalists in Saudi Arabia and taught English in Cairo.

Before The Siege was released in 1998 (later becoming the most-rented film in the month after 9/11), Islamic radicals who had read about it bombed a Planet Hollywood in Cape Town, South Africa, killing two tourists.  Wright jokes, with some guilty chagrin, that the desperate demand for The Siege made him “the first profiteer of the War on Terror.”

Gibney wisely varies the film’s texture, taking his documentary beyond Wright’s stage performance from 2007, to rich archival footage of Egypt and Afghanistan and scenes of Wright with former radicals, one of whom was sentenced to death for murder in Egypt. There is also an entertaining detour into what Wright calls the “coma” of Saudi Arabia. An indignant Wright tells about learning that he and his family were wiretapped by the FBI, and that his daughter was on a watch list.

Brimming with first-hand information, My Trip to Al-Qaeda can still have the tone of a primer when the camera is on Wright, whose high-pitched Oklahoma drawl doesn’t build stage charisma. Like Al Gore, Wright can sound preachy when making obvious points on stage – that al Qaeda would govern badly if it ever came to power (who imagined?), and that Americans violate their core values by practicing torture.        

The earnest tone is the trade-off in Gibney’s balancing of the expositional and the motivational. Wright’s account of own experiences make it worth it. You may feel that you have visited much of this territory before, but never with so knowledgeable a guide.

Production Companies: Jigsaw Productions

US (TV) Distributor: HBO Documentary Films

International Sales: Cinetic Media, www.cineticmedia.com

Producers: Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes, Kendall McCarthy

Executive Producers: Patricia Barnes Matthews, Dana O’Keefe

Screenplay: Lawrence Wright

Cinematographer: Maryse Alberti

Editor: Alison Ellwood

Music: Max Richter