America, fuck yeah? Not so much, says Mr. Freedom

America, fuck yeah? Not so much, says Mr. Freedom

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Marvel’s prospective summer tentpole Iron Man 3 has us thinking back on unusual superhero movies.

Mr. Freedom (1969)
An angry expatriate’s colossal middle finger to the country he once called home, the scathing 1969 satire Mr. Freedom makes Team America: World Police look subtle and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville look like an affectionate tribute to the Yankee spirit. Written and directed by photographer William Klein, a New York native who fled to France in the ’40s, the film chronicles the Parisian misadventures of a racist, chauvinistic superhero (fellow expat John Abbey, perfectly cast as a lunkheaded imperialist). Like The Comedian of Alan Moore’s later Watchmen, this cowboy-fascist—who’s introduced terrorizing a working-class black family—is clearly a cynical gloss on Captain America. He’s also a walking and talking embodiment of everything Klein hates about his homeland, from its then-current involvement in Vietnam to its shopping-mall culture to its pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps national rhetoric. (In one of several blowhard monologues, Abbey provides an endless list of unlikely odd jobs he’s performed on his way to the top.)

Spewing bile in all directions, Mr. Freedom is a breathlessly indignant polemic, but it’s also frequently hilarious. Some of the humor derives from Klein’s inspired spoofing of spy-movie conventions, à la adopted countryman Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Elsewhere, the film defaults to a cheery, go-for-broke absurdism: The U.S. embassy is an enormous supermarket populated chiefly by dancing bimbos, while Abbey’s entourage in Paris is a cheering posse of colorfully named converts. (Look for a young Serge Gainsbourg as M. Drugstore and Jeanne Dielman herself, Delphine Seyrig, as the film’s version of a Bond girl.) And though Mr. Freedom predates even the VHS era, there are countless freeze-frame-worthy sight gags, including a pink-robed KKK member planted in a crowd shot, and the Simpsons-ish revelation that Freedom HQ shares skyscraper space with Shell, General Motors, and United Fruit.

Sustaining this level of madly subversive farce over the course of an entire movie isn’t easy, and Klein runs out of points to make long before the apocalyptic finale. What’s more, Abbey’s Cold War adversaries—including a giant balloon creature dubbed Red China Man—blur the line between satirizing racial stereotypes and indulging in them. All said, though, Mr. Freedom has lost little of its audacious urgency—partially because its brand of satire feels so contemporary, but also because many of Klein’s bones to pick with America are still worth picking.

Availability: Packaged with two other films in Criterion’s William Klein Eclipse set; streaming on Hulu Plus; and available for rental from Netflix.

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