There’s a scene halfway through Team America: World Police in which one of the marionette heroes stumbles drunkenly from a bar and begins vomiting in a filthy alley. The filmmakers (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the overgrown adolescents behind the cultural satire of “South Park”) pump more and more liquid through his plastic mouth, he begins to rise, the music signals that his degradation is at an end, and then the vomiting begins again. And again. And again. It was then that I said to myself, this is one of the best films of the year.
I dislike gratuitous crudity in films, and watching a character throw up on camera is one of those things that I always find off-putting (In life, if we saw a person violently being sick, our natural reaction would be to turn away; by denying us that impulse a director reminds us that we’re under his control, not witnessing or taking part in the action; that we are a captive audience). But when that puppet expelled far more fluid than his small body could possibly hold, I couldn’t stop laughing. When I heard the music cues, I begged, please let it continue. And when, at the scene’s end, the camera rose up above the alley to reveal the puppet lying in a puddle of pea soup whose total mass must have been twice his, there was no doubt. I was hooked.
A joke doesn’t always have to be original to work; it’s possible to get by on a snappy delivery and good timing. Sometimes, familiarity can even help; we laugh in part because we remember the way we felt the first time we saw it. Team America has many recycled jokes that work, but it’s also full of references to scenes and movies that weren’t intended as comedy but were funny in the ways they took themselves seriously. It combines the bullheaded oversimplification of world issues found in such jingoistic 1980s films as Rambo, Commando, and the Chuck Norris oeuvre (Missing in Action, Delta Force, Invasion USA, et. al.) with the marionettes-played-straight silliness of the “Thunderbirds” TV series to achieve a brilliantly juvenile satire. The film attacks our nation’s imperialism, xenophobia, and shortsighted refusal to even consider other viewpoints by embracing those very qualities. The terrorists in the film speak the kind of gibberish Arabic you could imagine coming from the mouths of patriotic adolescents in study halls across the country, and when Team America embarks on a mission, it’s to the strains of a Survivor-style hard-rock song with the chorus “America, Fuck Yeah!”
The satire in Team America: World Police starts right there in the title—the film’s central subject is the United States governments’ hubristic assumption that our role as the only remaining superpower makes us the world’s unquestioned leader and guardian of freedom. The film’s heroes (their logo is a bald eagle snapping a globe in its beak) move through the world convinced they are doing good; they don’t even notice that they’ve leveled Paris in the process of defending it or destroyed a pyramid and the Sphinx while trying to capture terrorists in Cairo. They operate with the blind, unquestioning self-justification that led the Bush administration to assert it had done the right thing in invading Iraq, as its claims of WMD development and various other excuses for going to war were discredited.
The film never directly attacks Bush—neither he nor anyone in his administration is featured—and neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is addressed as such. Even Kim Jong Il, though a major character, isn’t really depicted as himself, a dangerous despot in control of who-knows-how-many nuclear weapons. He’s shown as a Bond villain, in keeping with the film’s limited frame of reference. His speaking voice (done by Trey Parker) is a blend of Elmer Fudd and Cartman from “South Park,” with the added feature that, as an Asian, his Ls and Rs are hopelessly confused (which leads to his pathetic soliloquy-song, “I’m So Ronery”).
Those who expected Team America to be an all-out attack on the current administration or a measurable force in the upcoming election will be disappointed. The movie is less direct and more sweeping than that. It attacks not the President but the attitudes of so many Americans, both those who support Bush and those who don’t, who insist that our stated values and our form of government give us the moral high ground and that our position justifies any action we consider appropriate. It’s not for nothing that the film recalls so many Reagan-era combat movies, though actions of the first Bush and the Clinton administration fall within its censure as well.
The film’s targets widen out, though, to include liberal pieties and the ill-informed Hollywood ideologues who spout them. Alec Baldwin is shown as the leader of the Film Actors’ Guild (a group whose name is introduced so that its acronym may be used repeatedly, perhaps too often, through the rest of the film), and he, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, and a variety of other politically active Hollywood actors are mocked and eventually eviscerated, beheaded, or defenestrated in defense of their knee-jerk politics. The most cruel caricature, though, is of Michael Moore, who’s shown as a garden-variety overweight loudmouth, stuffing his face with hot dogs as he decries American imperialism.
The greatest surprise in Team America is how effective its marionettes turn out to be. They are well-articulated enough, and given a wide enough expressive range, that at times they’re better actors than the human performers they’re mimicking (though with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris as prototypes, it doesn’t take much). Parker and Stone have attempted to recreate an ’80s action film in all its dimensions, and they mostly play the scenes straight, as they were originally intended. The marionettes are treated like any other actor, and they go through all the scenes required by the genre, attempting sex and hand-to-hand combat that are limited, hilariously, by their physical restrictions.
The real farce is Parker and Stone’s battle for an R rating from the MPAA, which apparently had no issue with the film’s over-the-top violence but required at least nine resubmissions of the puppet sex scene before it would back down from an NC-17. As Parker recently told the Los Angeles Times, “We blow Janeane Garofalo’s head clean off, [but for the MPAA] it’s all about the positions of the dolls having sex. … It’s not funny—it’s tragic.”
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Team America: World Police / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()