'Point and Shoot' review: Matthew VanDyke's story takes twists and turns
By Ann Hornaday
In 2011, Baltimore native Matthew VanDyke became a national headlinewhen he joined rebel forces in Libya, having already been imprisoned there for 5 1/2 months in a squalid jail. In the absorbing, ingeniously crafted documentary “Point and Shoot,” filmmaker Marshall Curry delves into the fascinating back story of what several observers saw as VanDyke’s misguided adventures in North Africa, with VanDyke himself serving as the story’s engaging, disarmingly self-aware narrator.
Like all good tales, “Point and Shoot” starts at the beginning, which in VanDyke’s case meant being “the only child of an only child of an only child.” Reared by a doting mother and grandmother, he admits that he was the spoiled center of his family’s world, finding escapist wish-fulfillment in movie and video-game adventures.
Feeling the need to prove himself and goaded by his girlfriend to break out of the tight confines of Baltimore, at age 29, VanDyke decided to give himself a “crash course in manhood.” In 2006 he bought a motorcycle and a video camera and set off to travel through Africa, the Middle East and beyond in the hopes of creating a travel adventure film, starring his own swashbuckling self. When he meets Nuri, a long-haired Libyan “hippie,” in Afghanistan, the course of his fate shifts radically. VanDyke — who always had been a loner at school — visits Tripoli and bonds with Nuri and his friends, finding comradeship hitherto unknown to him. Returning to Baltimore in 2010, he thinks his travels are over. But when the Libyan revolution breaks out the next year, he can’t resist the urge to help his friends as they battle the dictatorship that has oppressed them for more than three decades.
For five years, VanDyke obsessively filmed his perambulations up to and including his time with the rebels in Libya, and luckily he has an excellent eye: “Point and Shoot” is dominated by his extraordinary, often beautiful, footage of the places he visited, and his wartime material pulses with horror and immediacy. Curry has masterfully culled more than 200 hours of film, interleaving spectacular images with interviews with the handsomely charismatic VanDyke, who evenly explains how his boyish desire for risk fused with his deepest insecurities and search for identity.
VanDyke — whose obsessive-compulsive disorder provides a grimly funny subplot to his often grubby, bug-infested adventures — is keenly self-critical, admitting that, as his involvement with the Libyan civil war deepened, he began to question whether he was “a filmmaker or a fighter.” One of the most revealing sequences of “Point and Shoot” demonstrates how nearly every Libyan rebel was also filming his exploits on an iPhone, self-consciously stage-managing his every shot (cinematic and otherwise) for maximum effect on Facebook or to impress a wife or girlfriend back home.
Like last year’s “The Square,” “Point and Shoot” gives viewers an invaluable street-level glimpse of the realities of war at its most chaotic and random; like Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater,” it lifts the veil on life as a prisoner of war in solitary confinement (obviously VanDyke didn’t have his camera for these passages, a problem Curry gracefully solves by way of subtly expressive animation). But “Point and Shoot” is at its most brilliant when VanDyke and Curry tease out the nuanced issues of narcissism and anxiety that undergird our most heroic — and self-deceiving — narratives of battle, courage and heroism. VanDyke might have set out to give himself a crash course in manhood, but “Point and Shoot” gives us a crash course in the myriad and contradictory things the word has come to mean.