MOVIE REVIEW: 'Point and Shoot' documents an egomaniac's experience of war
By Al Alexander
Lawrence of Arabia or egomaniac? That’s the question director Marshall Curry asks us to ponder after absorbing his riveting documentary, “Point and Shoot.” And the person in judgment is Matthew VanDyke, a 26-year-old fame-seeker who unwittingly traded the comfort of his mother’s Baltimore basement for a Libyan jail cell during the Arab Spring of 2011.
How he wound up in Gaddafi’s clutches is only half the story of what VanDyke calls “a crash course in manhood.” The other is a fascinating study of how he fits snuggly into our look-at-me culture. Like Che Guevara and T.E. Lawrence before him, VanDyke’s journey began on the back of a motorcycle traveling a foreign land. In this case, North Africa and the Middle East. VanDyke tells Curry it was his goal to visit every Arab country in the region from Morocco to Afghanistan, a 35,000-mile trek that eventually led him to Iraq, where he served as a temporary war correspondent for the Baltimore Examiner.
The heart of the documentary, though, is VanDyke’s experiences in Libya, where the new friends he made there left him feeling like he’d “arrived home.” That was a couple years before the Arab Spring broke out while he was back in Baltimore with his mother and girlfriend, Lauren. But when CNN reported an uprising in Benghazi, VanDyke immediately booked a flight to Cairo, driving directly to Libya to fight alongside his pals with a gun in one hand and, of course, a camera in the other. Watching, you get the distinct feeling the gun is just a prop. His real weapon is the camera. It puts you right in the center of an actual revolution. Take that, “Mockingjay.” And it’s scary. But not as frightening as VanDyke’s level of self-involvement. He reveals himself to be a selfie junkie. And he can’t seem to get enough of his favorite subject. Many will find this annoying, but I reacted to him like I do every other reality star – openly. And as much as you hate to admit it, many of these camera hogs are irresistibly likeable. Such is the case with the handsome, charismatic VanDyke. You’re as full of him as he’s full of himself.
Much of his appeal is due to his lack of arrogance. If anything, you sympathize for his spoiled-child upbringing, in which he admits he was always the center of attention. He clearly enjoyed the limelight, as we can see in home movies shot during his boyhood by his single-parent mother. Like Matthew, she was an only child, and you can kind of see where he gleaned his overconfidence. Less believable are his claims that he suffers from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), a diagnosis the film simply does not support. Perhaps such examples were left on the cutting-room floor during Curry’s unenviable job of editing hundreds of hours of VanDyke’s footage down to a very watchable 83 minutes.
Like every reality show, you take everything with a grain of salt, especially after you see a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq asking VanDyke to film them faking a raid on an abandoned shed. They tell him they want footage of them acting like soldiers even though they really are soldiers. It’s a weird meta request, but fits nicely into “Point and Shoot’s” underlying theme of how we’ve grown into a society where everything we do must be validated with a camera. But in VanDyke’s case, feeding your ego can also get you thrown into solitary confinement, which is what happened after he was eventually captured by Gaddafi’s forces. VanDyke spent nearly six months in the hole, which is harrowing in itself. But’s what’s more frightening is that VanDyke learned nothing from the experience, ignoring pleas to return to the States following his release to instead head back to his Libyan buddies on the frontlines.
Part of you is glad that he stayed because what he’s documented is gripping. But another part of you believes he had no business being there, inserting himself into another country’s affairs. It’s an uncomfortable microcosm of our nation’s recent spate of imperialism, as well as it’s a subtle indictment of our universal belief that what’s good for the Kardashians is good for the gander. It’s an epidemic, and in VanDyke’s case it very well could have cost him his life. The irony, of course, is that had he died in Libya, we might never have seen his footage. And, worse, had he been caught in Syria, ISIS might well have decapitated him. And where would a media whore be without his head?