My Trip to Al-Qaeda -- Film Review

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AUSTIN -- Deeply committed reporting, a dash of personal involvement and the occasional eruption of outrage help a journalist hold the stage in "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," a performance film that finds a way to look at recent history without getting lost in the war-doc pack. Director Alex Gibney's name should add to the film's potential in an arthouse run and on video.

An adaptation of Lawrence Wright's one-man play, which was itself an offshoot of his book "The Looming Tower," the film combines an informative exploration of the terror group's roots with glimpses of the day-to-day dilemmas faced by a writer whose career requires befriending dangerous men.

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In chapters with teasing names like "Kindergarten of Hate" and "The Hypnotized Chicken," we watch Wright sit on a stage resembling his office and discuss the backstory of Al-Qaeda in terms that are personal and emotionally charged, the opposite of a dry newspaper account.

Pointing out that he was, in a strange way, "the first profiteer" from the 9/11 attacks ("The Siege," a terror-related film he co-wrote, was a huge renter after September 11) and that he once taught at the university in Cairo, which was later attended by hijacker Mohamed Atta, Wright explains his emotional need to dig beyond the immediate facts of the war on terror and try to understand the enemy.

As he tells his story, Gibney amplifies the play by taking us out of the theater, following Wright down Cairo's streets to meet sources. The relationships he develops there are both poignant and ethically intriguing; the author notes that to some extent he must "pretend sympathy" with those who hate the West if he hopes to get any useful information out of them. On a more nuts-and-bolts level, we visit Wright's office and see the mammoth archiving system with which he keeps his facts straight.

Back on stage, the filmmakers work with the theatrical design in an effort to generate a "Swimming to Cambodia" level of drama. Though they approach it occasionally -- as when Wright drops to his knees in front of bright lights, mimicking a captive's stance -- the film has to balance its aesthetics with hard journalism, and Wright isn't as nimble a raconteur as Spalding Gray. (Who is?) Still, the journalist has a gravitas of his own, and the steady, thoughtful way he carries viewers along on this investigation makes for a gripping, distinctive sort of journalistic project.

Venue: South by Southwest Festival

Production company: Jigsaw Productions
Cast: Lawrence Wright
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Lawrence Wright
Executive producers: Patricia Barnes Matthews, Dana O'Keefe
Producers: Alison Ellwood, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes, Kendall McCarthy
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designers: Amanda Ford, Garin Marschall
Music: Max Richter
Editor: Alison Ellwood
No MPAA rating, 86 minutes
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