Looking for new movies to fill out your Netflix queue this fall? These two films are educational—and fun to watch.
My Trip to Al Qaeda
Before writing The Looming Tower, his acclaimed history of the roots of September 11, Lawrence Wright wrote the script for the late ’90s terrorism thriller The Siege. The controversial film, starring Denzel Washington, imagined how Americans might react—and overreact—to a terror attack on Manhattan. Before it even opened, a South African Planet Hollywood was bombed in protest; after 9/11, it became the nation’s most-rented movie, “making me,” Wright explains, “the first profiteer in the War on Terror.”
So opens Wright’s adaptation of his one-man show of the same name, which prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney (Casino Jack, Taxi to the Dark Side) has beefed up with extra footage and trips to London, Cairo, and Riyadh to talk with former and current jihadists. What begins as a sober look at Al Qaeda’s origins builds into an impassioned, intensely personal look at how terrorism breeds insanity and nihilism. If he were to get a face-to-face interview with Osama bin Laden, Wright wonders, would journalistic ethics permit him to stab the man who imagines a world “where ideals and aspirations disappear”?
Wright’s anger isn’t limited to Al Qaeda. He’s also upset by the Egyptian autocrats and Saudi clerics who feed Al Qaeda’s ranks, as well as the American politicians whose backsliding on torture and domestic spying seem to be “following a script that has been written by Osama bin Laden.” —Dave Gilson
This Spellbound-style doc tracks three teens vying for top honors at the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious science fair. Director Tom Shepard, who profiled Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2006’s Knocking, chronicles both the excitement and the excruciating pressure: In one memorable scene, a likable West Virginia girl, the inventor of a filter that removes carcinogens from water, sobs after a grueling session with the judges. Still, the overall message is positive: Considering how far American students still lag behind their international peers in math and science, a little competition might not be such a bad thing. —Jessica Calefati