If you're not convinced the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States changed everything, ask yourself this: If anybody had told you on September 10 that the talk of early-21st-century Hollywood was going to be an action feature film in which marionettes play celebrities and world leaders, would you have believed it?
That, as everybody now knows, is the idea behind Team America: World Police, a new film, opening Friday, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (with Pam Brady), and directed by Parker. The premise: a team of American hotshots save the earth from terrorist evil, in a Bruckheimeresque world-spanning blockbuster, complete with original musical numbers. The actors—of course!—are portrayed entirely by marionettes-on-strings, with animatronic heads.
America's role as the world's policeman is the hottest and most contentious topic this election season. Given Parker and Stone's characteristic not-at-all delicate demolitions of the pretensions of officious busybodies, political shibboleths and authorities of all varieties—with a special focus on the inanities of our gods in the world of entertainment—you might have expected the filmmakers to deliver hilariously inappropriate entertainment edged with that potential comedy killer, An Important Point.
They delivered. Among such typical Parker/Stone bad taste milestones as the cinema's longest and most detailed puppet vomit and sex scenes (separate scenes, alas, but a filmmaker's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?) is a movie that dramatizes the most cartoonish competing visions of America's proper role in the world scene.
Team America's ridiculous way of making points—I use that word in its most literal sense, because all the characters (and their beliefs) in this movie are clearly being ridiculed on some level—could fairly be taken in at least three ways. (The rest of this piece will inevitably supply some spoilers, both of jokes and plot twists.)
*As an antiwar metaphor. Apparently, according to some anonymous yutz in the White House who blathered to Drudge, the White House is sniffily Not Amused. "I really do not think terrorism is funny, and I would suggest Paramount give respect to those fighting and sacrificing to keep America safe," this impeccable source told Drudge.
The flick undoubtedly supplies some ammunition to those who find Bush's foreign policy criminally reckless. The Bush style is here boldly exemplified by a superteam of Blackhawk-like special forces (three men, two women, five clichés) who fly around the world trying to foil the schemes of America's terrorist enemies and their everpresent WMDs. In the process they quite blithely destroy the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and a Great Pyramid, as well as many lives both innocent and guilty. When they're heading out triumphantly to fight, it's to the tune of the defiantly moronic brawny country extravaganza "America! Fuck Yeah!" (When their fortunes are on the wane, they fly out to the tune of a slow, sad version of the same song.)
The movie's foreigners talk in incomprehensible jibber-jabber interspersed with declarations like "mohammad jihad." We the viewers are informed of the whereabouts of any foreign locale merely in relation to how far they are from the United States. Our heroes, though convinced of their own righteousness, are ignorant and unheeding. They have a singular and obsessive vision, but one they couldn't articulate beyond being for "freedom." And they don't care whom they hurt in the process of their violent pursuit of this vision. In other words, they are like the Bush foreign policy team post-9/11, painted with the most uncharitably broad brush possible.
*As a pro-war metaphor. Antiwar forces are represented by the assembled forces of the Film Actor's Guild (FAG), at first merely foolishly feckless and later active violent collaborators with a Bond villain version of Kim Jong-Il. Janeane Garofalo proclaims that "it's an actor's responsibility to read the newspapers and repeat it on TV as if it were our own ideas"; Sean Penn rhapsodizes about the happy children in rivers of chocolate that inhabited pre-war Iraq; a hatefully smug Tim Robbins opens his mini-lecture with "let me explain how this works" and going on to riff on how, you see, the corporations are responsible for all evil by making money and being all corporation-y in their corporate HQs.
In a sententious stemwinder that neatly sums up, in all its male-American vulgar glory, the overriding attitude this movie has toward peaceniks of all varieties, Alec Baldwin explains to a gang of assembled world leaders that they must "handle dangerous people with talk and reason—that's the FAG way." And, he adds, when we see the world that will result from that method of dealing with evildoers, we will all say: "Good going, FAG."
And the film's final-final speech, from one of its heroes, provides a deliciously vulgar extended metaphor explaining why even the most peaceful of peaceniks, in a world full of sometimes intractable evil, require the services of reckless cowboy warriors like Team America.
*As a hilarious hoot that has no point to make at all. Whereas in South Park they reduce animation to its shoddiest basics for comedic effect, while essaying marionettes for Team America, they go to the opposite extreme, providing the puppets with animatronic heads and in general being as elaborate as string-operated puppets are apt to get. (The technical details apparently nearly drove director Trey Parker mad.)
Strangely, this only works comedically a few times—in the first scene when it's unexpected, and in some parts where the reality of a puppet doing the action is inherently funny, For example, trying to point at another's heart, or visiting a series of D.C.-based national monuments to muse on the meaning and value of freedom, ending with a marionette leaning against a tombstone at Arlington.
Most of the time, though, the puppetry can be taken quite matter-of-factly, and it shows up high-priced actors and expensive models and bluescreen and CGI as the merest indulgence of the unimaginative. Thinking back a few hours after seeing the film, this viewer remembered the scenes of fighting, carnage, and conversation as being just as real and gripping as anything with actors or "real" effects could have been.
And the very funniest parts, the songs, don't have much to do with the central geopolitical conceits of the plot. For example, the Broadway rouser "Everybody Has AIDS" ("the straights and the gays/the whites and the spades… the pope has AIDS and so do you! AIDS! AIDS! AIDS!"), Kim Jong-Il's character-developing tearjerker "I'm So Ronery", and "Montage!", explaining in highly excitable singing the many storytelling advantages for the filmmaker of montage sequences, are what will linger longest in the memory, and have nothing to do with foreign policy per se.
Still, given its overall tone and plot, the movie could well be imagined as insidious propaganda softening up Americans for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. (In a strange move whose meaning for the movie I'm not entirely sure of, neither George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Al Queda, nor the current situations in Iraq or Afghanistan are ever referred to specifically—random Arabs and North Koreans are the villains.) Just as Casablanca could be seen as a war-waging America's excuse to itself for the isolationism that preceded it—you knew all along that crusty ol' Bogie would eventually stick his neck out for others—so might this one be seen as explaining to ourselves that, no matter how much we destroy along the way, the world needs our unbridled might.
But, you know, probably not. To say that there is anything important or inspirational or educational about all this high silliness would be to its creators perhaps as faux-insulting as calling Bogie a big softie—he'd tell you to go to hell, you're nuts. But deep down inside, you'd think you knew where he was really coming from. The movie certainly doesn't make figuring that out easy for you, if authorial intent even matters here. Though the creators might want us to think hard about the fact that, as one of their songs goes, "freedom isn't free/there's a hefty fucking fee," it's hard to take it seriously when the song informs you grimly that that fee is an absurdly specific "buck o-five." Maybe the creators did just want to indulge in the purely destructive comic joy of forcing puppets into oral sex and reconstructive surgery and showing Tim Robbins being burned alive.
Still, when their conflicted Team America newcomer wants to quit, declaring that "I don't want the fucking power, guilt, shame, responsibility" that comes with being part of Team America, I'd like to think that a significant number of Americans will be cheering along with "America! Fuck Yeah!" But as a whole the movie pisses merrily on all sides of the debate, designed to foil any didact's wishes. Every detail, no matter what "side" it seems to be supporting in the foreign policy debate, makes that side seem ultimately absurd, which may be the biggest truth about geopolitics a filmmaker can tell.