“Freedom isn’t free / No, there’s a hefty fucking fee.” —Team America: World Police
In the comedy world, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the unruly kids shooting spitballs from the back of the class. They’re foul-mouthed and juvenile, with an eagerness to press cultural hot buttons and slaughter every last sacred cow that wanders through their satirical abattoir. Their tools are crude beyond belief: the exceedingly (though charmingly) lazy cut-out animation of South Park, the snot-nosed eagerness to test ratings-board and network standards at every opportunity, and a geopolitical philosophy that, in Team America: World Police, anyway, can be reduced to the relationship between dicks, pussies, and assholes. Yet they’re always smarter than it seems: Within even the dicks/pussies/assholes talk, there’s a coherent argument for American intervention overseas. They’re more or less libertarians, which grants them the broadest possible satirical license (and no skin in the game whatsoever), but the tone they strike is one of generalized rebellion. Parker and Stone are a little like Marlon Brando in The Wild One: When asked what he’s rebelling against, he replies “Whatta you got?”
So what have you got in 2004, when Parker and Stone made the bold/crazy decision to make a feature film populated almost entirely by marionettes? You’ve got an America that had squandered vast reserves of global sympathy after 9/11, tackled terrorism with chest-thumping unilateralism, and allowed the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay to vulgarize history with a little movie called Pearl Harbor. You’ve also got crusading celebrity peaceniks, networks of evildoers seeking weapons of mass destruction, and a ronery North Korean dictator craving attention from other nations like a petulant 10-year-old. Throw all those ingredients in the pot, and you get the lumpy stew that is Team America: World Police, a catch-as-catch-can satire in the Parker/Stone tradition—meaning it’s cutting, politically incorrect, juvenile in ways both sublime and stupid, and sometimes misguided and genuinely risible. One major plus: The songs are great enough to hold the whole shambling operation together.
The first thing that stands out about Team America is the look of the film, pilfered from the “Supermarionation” of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s mid-’60s British TV show Thunderbirds. What’s particularly striking—and what tends to go unrecognized due to the natural awkwardness of puppetry with visible strings—is how beautiful the film looks, particularly in light of the deliberate shoddiness of Parker/Stone collaborations past. The photographer, Bill Pope, was just coming off the Matrix trilogy, and through his lens, the lovingly detailed environments come off like the greatest toy playsets a child could imagine. Sets like Paris, with its lush diorama of the city in miniature, or Kim Jong Il’s palace, with its ornate monuments to the diabolical narcissist himself, are gorgeous to behold, even though Parker and Stone seem intent on blowing up every last one of them. The marionettes also allow them to do for live-action what they get away with more easily in animation: demonstrate a deeply cynical, grossly oversimplified worldview by reducing characters to the most basic stereotypes. When you’re dealing with flesh-and-blood actors, people tend to call you on stuff like that.
Say this for Team America, though: The first 30 minutes or so are virtually non-stop brilliance, connecting the country’s “America, Fuck Yeah!” heavy-handedness to the garish spectacle of a Bruckheimer production. The late director Robert Altman got in some trouble after 9/11 for blaming Hollywood’s violent exports in part for inspiring such an attack, but while that claim seems tenuous, there’s a disturbing association between the destruction we present as entertainment and the destruction we reap and sow around the world. In the early going, Team America plays out like the self-conscious movie version of the War On Terror: Whenever the conspicuous Osama bin Laden look-alikes are onscreen, we hear the mournful Middle Eastern music cues of every terrorist-themed action movie of the past decade; before an all-American hero strikes down an enemy fighter, she’s ready with a canned one-liner (“Hey, terrorist: Terrorize this!”); and no famous monument or landmark is safe from demolition.
Parker and Stone make hay out of what Robert McNamara, in The Fog Of War, talked about as the perils of a disproportional response. Instead of doing scalpel-worthy work by disrupting terrorist networks, the shock-and-awe of the American military comes down like a club. In the opening sequence in Paris, the elite unit known as Team America takes down a handful of terrorists (“You in the robe, put down the weapon of mass destruction!”), but their errant missiles also lay waste to the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre. Then later, when they copter into a crowded bazaar in Egypt—where the pyramids and the Sphinx will also see damage—they land square on top of a merchant’s stand. “Fear not, Muslim friends,” they say. “We’re here to find terrorists.” And probably make a few as well.
Between the freewheeling digs at American solipsism (title card: “Paris, France; 3635 miles east of America”), the base language about why we’re at war (“They’re called terrorists, Gary, and they hate everything about you”), and inspired potshots at the musical Rent, Team America gets around to telling something resembling a story—cobbled together, of course, from bits and pieces of Bruckheimer movies past, especially Top Gun and Armageddon. The naïve hero is blue-eyed Gary, recruited from Broadway for the acting skills Team America needs to infiltrate a terrorist network. Even after meeting a crack unit of patriots—like former Nebraska all-star quarterback Joe, or Chris, “the best martial artist Detroit has to offer”—Gary is reluctant to answer the call to service. Reluctant, that is, until he wanders into this glorious montage sequence, with its stirring Darryl Worley-esque jingoism:
Not long after Gary joins forces with the rest of Team America, the air slowly starts to go out of the movie. There are still flashes of greatness scattered throughout—the songs, including a Pearl Harbor takedown and a Kim Jong Il ballad, are uniformly hilarious, and the infamous puppet-fucking montage goes to outrageous places in the unrated version—but Parker and Stone let the satire get away from them. The introduction of the Film Actors Guild (or F.A.G., har har), a group of liberal movie stars (Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, et al.) that behave like America-hating Hanoi Janes, almost completely derails the comedy. Parker and Stone pride themselves as equal-opportunity offenders, but the sudden shift from critiquing the War On Terror to attacking its attackers and hailing American muscle is confusing and schizophrenic. It’s a little like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove pivoting halfway through its withering satire on nuclear folly, and suddenly praising the hawkish policy of deterrence through arms buildup. Put it another way: What if Kubrick and friends really did learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?
It’s possible that my finding the F.A.G. stuff brutally unfunny says more about my own critical blind spots than any failure on Parker and Stone’s part. As a left-leaning type, I’m naturally more open to broadsides on Bush terror policy than nose-thumbing at the earnest, capitulating pussies that would give aid and comfort to our enemies. Truth be told, strident right-wing satire like An American Carol or The 1/2 Hour News Hour is like a dog whistle I can’t hear, in spite of my own interest in being an equal-opportunity aesthete. Still, if you’re going to go after Michael Moore, why not try a little harder than having him scarf down hot dogs and pizza? And is there anything more childish than luxuriating over snuff shots of burned/decapitated/splattered celebrities? Satirists are all about speaking truth to power, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about the last eight years, it’s that anti-war advocates had no power whatsoever. And celebrities even less: In terms of ready-made punchlines, Hollywood types are right up there with San Francisco and the French, and there’s no equivalence between the abuses of American power and the tyranny of hybrid-car promoters. Nevertheless, Parker and Stone finally get around to articulating a philosophy, as profanely as possible, of course:
To sum up: Parker and Stone are making their best argument for the necessity of American ass-kickery overseas, because there are no other dicks around to do the necessary job of taking out assholes. Getting to that point involves an about-face from the beginning, and the film winds up forfeiting the brilliant conceit of a Bruckheimer-ized War On Terror in order to detail a confusing, feckless alliance between Kim Jong Il and the Hollywood elite. Parker and Stone relish their roles as outsiders and iconoclasts—hence their Groucho-like “Whatever it is, I’m against it” leanings—but not all targets are created equal, and the second half of Team America is pretty weak sauce. (Even then, there are scattered laughs, like a projectile-vomit gag that keeps going and going, or an ’80s-style montage in which Gary the actor becomes Gary the soldier.) Like many Parker/Stone ventures, it’s a fitfully inspired mess, equal parts sophisticated and crass, and it runs out of ideas long before the calamitous finale. Still, if future generations want to trace the deep fault-lines of American culture circa 2004, they’d be hard-pressed to find anything more wide-ranging, hilarious, contradictory, and relevant.
Next week: Code Unknown
June 11: Trust
June 18: Quick Change
June 25: I [Heart] Huckabees