When we first see Matthew VanDyke, the subject of the riveting and perplexing documentary “Point and Shoot,” he’s dressed like a ninja and addressing his video camera as he describes where on his body he can hide knives. The guy looks like a laid-back hippie, but he wants us to be aware that he knows his way around deadly weapons.
VanDyke is tall, thin, and good looking — but there’s a whiff of asshole-ism in the air. What kind of dweeb makes videos of himself brandishing weapons?
Marshall Curry’s doc — a collaboration with VanDyke — immerses us in an impressive true-life story. VanDyke grew up a loner in Baltimore, tormented by obsessive compulsive disorder (he’s always having to jump up to wash his hands and cannot abide being near sugar). He immersed himself in violent video games, make-your-own-adventure books and action movies. VanDyke was one of those guys who took Schwarzenegger and Van Damme seriously.
A MENSA brainiac, he studied the Middle East at the University of Maryland, graduating summa cum laude, and went on to graduate work at Georgetown U.’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
In 2007 VanDyke decided it was time to give himself “a crash course in manhood.” He went to the Middle East, bought a motorcycle, and for four years cruised the region, going as far east as Afghanistan. He met local folk and filmed his adventures as if recording them for posterity. He would mount his camera on a tripod and leave it running while he sped several miles away. Then he’d return, capturing his arrival in one long shot. Sometimes he would spend two hours to get 5 seconds of dramatic footage of himself.
Okay, there’s something appealing about hopping on a chopper and seeing the world — but was all the masturbatory ego-stroking really necessary?
VanDyke’s journeys were only the preamble for the main event. Having made friends from Libya, he joined the rebels fighting the forces of Libyan strong man Muammar Gaddafi. Not as an observer. Not as a journalist (though at one point he did get a Baltimore paper to designate him a freelance correspondent). But as a freedom fighter.
Captured by Gaddafi forces he spent months in solitary confinement, listening to other prisoners being tortured and succumbing to hallucinations provoked by his OCD. Eventually VanDyke was freed as part of a general prison jailbreak. As soon as he could, he rejoined his rebel friends, confronting Gaddafi loyalists in house-to-house fighting.
Most of the footage featured in “Point and Shoot” was captured by VanDyke — and much of it is terrific. When he’s not trying to make himself the star of the show, he shows he can be a fearless photo journalist.
It’s weird — VanDyke may be a narcissist, but he makes a show of asking himself: “Is this authentic? Am I posing for the camera? Is it real?”
In the end, we can admire VanDyke and his real-life adventures without actually liking the guy. And that’s where “Point and Shoot” gets heavy, giving us a man whom we find weirdly charismatic even as he’s creeping us out.