My Trip to Al Qaeda: Review of Lawrence Wright’s HBO Documentary

My Trip to Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright’s new special that premieres Tuesday night, exposes Osama bin Laden and his terrorist operation—and warns the U.S. is playing into their playbook.

Lawrence Wright, America’s foremost journalistic interpreter of Islamic jihadism, teams up with Alex Gibney, our most prolific and discerning documentary filmmaker, for My Trip to Al Qaeda, premiering at 9 p.m. Tuesday night, September 7, on HBO.

Like Wright’s one-man play on which the movie is based—a chronicle of his personal and professional journey in writing The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the forces that brought about the 9/11 attacks— My Trip to Al Qaeda gives evil a human face.

For instance, with his winsome sense of irony and actorly command, Wright muses about the 14-year-old girl who became the first wife of Osama bin Laden, then a lad of 17: “I often think what she must have expected when she married this young scion of an extremely wealthy Saudi family. She must have thought, ‘My life is going to be shopping in Paris, you know, yachts on the Mediterranean.’ Instead she ended up in Afghanistan, the first of five wives of a terrorist leader.”

Jace Lacob: HBO’s Scorsese SensationAs with Wright’s powerfully compelling book, the movie convincingly takes us inside the heads of these alien monsters who worship death and revile the West, so that in the end we feel that we understand and even, to some extent, empathize with them. Gibney does a miraculous job of combining the elements of Wright’s stage play, dressing-room ruminations, news footage, and interviews with experts, into a riveting, visually arresting narrative.

Chris Dickey: What HBO Teaches Us About TerrorismThe documentary’s haunting theme: Al Qaeda and bin Laden are successfully tricking the United States into losing its democratic soul—having persuaded our leaders to use police-state tactics and torture, ostensibly to preserve the constitutional republic. Giving due credit to the al Qaeda founder’s “cinematic imagination,” Wright warns: “We are following a script that has been written by Osama bin Laden. This is the role he has been longing for us to play.”

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.