Before he fired his gun at a Libyan government soldier, Matthew VanDyke wanted to make sure the camera was filming. "Is it on record?" he asks. As if the kill wouldn't count unless he had it down on video.
Point and Shoot is a riveting documentary and a disturbing portrait of a pampered American's "crash course in manhood." VanDyke is the peculiar protagonist – a well-educated mama's boy with few friends. He read Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child, was well-versed in video war-gaming, suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and idolized Lawrence of Arabia.
Well into his 20s, the lean, handsome VanDyke had never done his own laundry nor paid any bills. He did a master's in Middle East studies at Georgetown University, but he had never been anywhere.
So, with a helmet-cam and little else, he took off on a motorcycle adventure to Spain and Morocco, where he broke his collarbone and retreated to his hotel room. He phoned his girlfriend, who called him a coward.
He'd show her, or maybe it was time to show himself.
The footage of Point and Shoot was taken by VanDyke, but this narcissist is not interested in merely documenting events – he wants to shape them. He was writing his own life story, filmed and on the fly. High on adventure, he was also a junkie building up an adrenalin tolerance.
It was up to director Marshall Curry (who was Oscar-nominated for his 2011 ecoterrorism doc, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front) to edit the wealth of footage and frame the story. The focus is squarely on the vainglorious VanDyke – or should we call him "Max Hunter, fearless danger man," which is what he dubbed himself.
We can see Point and Shoot as a war-zone Into the Wild. There's no guidebook on rites of passage for young men, but it usually comes down to survival. Tom Brokaw told us that America's "greatest generation" was made up of those who served in the Second World War, and in the United States would-be leaders are still looked upon with suspicion if they hadn't ever worn a uniform.
And so, even after VanDyke recovered from his broken collarbone and took off on a 56,000-kilometre motorcycle odyssey through North Africa and the Middle East and managed to get himself embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq as an unpaid war correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, he hadn't had his fill of the thrill.
He returned home in 2010, but the events of 2011's Arab Spring called him to return to Libya, where he had previously befriended Nuri Funas, a mellow fellow. But when VanDyke returned, the hippie Libyan was wearing a soldier's uniform – he was now a rebel devoted to the overthrow of the dictator Moammar Gadhafi. VanDyke joins the fight, but is soon captured and thrown into solitary confinement for six months. After he gets out – it is not made clear how – he carries on as a rebel.
After which, when he eventually returns to the U.S. for good, there is soul-searching to be had. What had he been fighting for? The Libyan civil war had been heavily documented – cameras were everywhere, with rebel soldiers holding a cellphone in one hand and an AK-47 in the other.
"Everyone tries to create their idealized image of how they want to be seen and who they want to be," explains VanDyke, talking about pictures of people and their big guns. Christopher McCandless, of Into the Wild infamy, opted out of what he saw as a corrupt civilization and took off to Alaska as an homage to Thoreau. A selfish but noble expedition.
The self-absorbed VanDyke's adventure is more distressing. We live in a world of Facebook validation and reality-television celebration. "How did a guy from Baltimore end up fighting in the Libyan Revolution," VanDyke, who is not the macho type at all, is asked at the beginning of the film. He says he doesn't know, but he knew all right. He did it for the rush, not the cause, which makes for a story that is tremendously gripping and thought-provoking, but leaves the viewer feeling a little dirty. That's success for a certain type of film; Point and Shoot is that type.