Team America: World Police
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Trey Parker
Written by Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady
Filmmakers trying their hand at political satire are always wise to note the Firefly Doctrine, established in 1933 at the end of the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup. As Rufus T. Firefly, president of Freedonia, Groucho has led his country to war against neighboring Sylvania. Trapped in a house and under siege by the enemy, he and his brothers triumph through the relatively simple maneuver of pinning down the advancing Sylvanian ambassador like a carnival target and pummeling him with apples. Margaret Dumont, playing the grand matron of Freedonia, declares victory and begins singing the national anthem--at which point the brothers turn around and begin hurling apples at her.
Hammering both sides may look like an offensive strategy, but in truth it's the best defense: as soon as a comedian declares his political allegiance he becomes a target himself. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have embraced the Firefly Doctrine in their cult cartoon series South Park, and they've taken pains to position their new antiterrorism satire, Team America: World Police, as a provocation to both the left and the right. "We don't know anything about foreign policy or anything," Stone told the Associated Press. "We don't know anything about anything." The movie--a spoof of global-crisis blockbusters, cast with marionettes like the old Thunderbirds TV show--has offended conservatives with its epic vulgarity and angered liberals with its hip militarism. Yet the real divide it opens up is less political than generational.
Look at the reviews published by the Chicago Sun-Times last Friday. Roger Ebert, writing in the grown-up edition, gave the movie one star: "Like a cocky teenager who's had a couple of drinks before the party, [Parker and Stone] don't have a plan for who they want to offend, only an intention to be as offensive as possible....At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stone and company is to sneer at both sides--indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously." Meanwhile Red Streak, the edition for young people who prefer not to know anything about anything, featured the movie on its cover and trumpeted a four-star review by Josh Larsen. "'Team America: World Police' offers a foreign policy that's more cogent and practical than anything we've heard during the presidential debates," wrote Larsen. "There's a tinge of racism and more than a few dabs of homophobia--in other words, something to offend everyone--as well as that crude but sensible spin on international relations, one which I would never be able to repeat here."
South Park, which debuted on Comedy Central in August 1997, brilliantly exploits this generation gap: it's a show that children watch to feel older and adults watch to feel younger. A cheaply animated, proudly juvenile cartoon about four middle-school boys in a small Rocky Mountain town, it operates at the level of a playground taunt while unpacking all manner of American smugness and self-righteousness. Parker and Stone's theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is the 90s heir to Duck Soup, an antiwar satire lobbing apples in every direction. After the heroes sneak into an R-rated Canadian movie and pick up a lexicon of filthy language, their incensed parents convince President Clinton to declare war on Canada and execute Terrance and Phillip, the movie's vulgar stars. Meanwhile, Satan and his gay lover, Saddam Hussein, are plotting to conquer the earth once Terrance and Phillip are martyred. In one scene the white commander of U.S. forces decides to send an all-black brigade on a suicide mission; when one smart-ass soldier asks him if he's ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, the general snaps, "I don't listen to hip-hop."
With this sort of credibility behind it, Team America: World Police came down the pike as a presold youth experience. Parker and Stone enjoyed a highly publicized battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over the movie's puppet-sex scenes, a profoundly absurd conflict that conveniently echoed the plot of Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Sean Penn gave the movie even more free publicity when he wrote the duo a semiliterate letter scolding Stone for his mockery of the "Vote or Die!" registration campaign ("You guys are talented young guys but alas, primarily young guys"). And Rolling Stone, the periodical that outdistances all others in its desperate search for the fountain of youth, labeled Team America "the #1 film to see this fall."
Given all the buzz, I was eager to like Team America--no one wants to be the old fart who doesn't get the joke. Parker and Stone deliver plenty of transgressive schoolboy laughs as their delicate marionettes curse, vomit, and copulate; hell, just seeing the puppets walk is funny. On a second viewing I was delighted by how slyly the film mimics the wide-screen style of Jerry Bruckheimer's megabudget right-wing action flicks like Con Air and The Rock, in which the heroes always swagger toward the camera in slow motion as something explodes into flames behind them. Parker's song parodies are priceless, among them the glib show tune "Everybody Has AIDS" (a spoof of Rent), the preachy country ballad "Freedom Isn't Free," and the jingoistic rocker "America--Fuck, Yeah!" But as pundits and politicians never tire of pointing out, 9/11 has changed everything, and the genuine subversion of Bigger, Longer & Uncut has given way to a timid fatalism. I came to the movie feeling young and defiant, but I left it feeling old and defeated.
The title heroes are an elite squad of commandos who blast off from a secret base inside Mount Rushmore to battle third-world terrorists around the globe, though they often wind up flattening world monuments in their defense of freedom (during the opening scene, set in Paris, they manage to destroy the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre). The resident supervillain is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who sells WMD to various terror organizations and drops UN weapons inspector Hans Blix into a shark tank to be eaten alive. Coming to his aid are liberal dupes Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Janeane Garofalo, and other members of the Film Actors Guild (FAG). But the biggest traitor of all is suicide bomber Michael Moore, who infiltrates the team's headquarters with dynamite strapped to his body and a hot dog in each hand.
Bashing self-important celebrities has been a cherished fixture of South Park: one memorable episode had the town being menaced by a giant, Godzilla-like Barbra Streisand. And Parker and Stone hit the bull's-eye when their Janeane Garofalo puppet declares, "As actors, it is our responsibility to read the newspaper and then say what we read on television like it's our own opinion." But surely in a world rapidly going to hell we have bigger worries than Janeane Garofalo. I prefer to think of her as a nuisance, like prostitution or illegal gambling. And though President Clinton appeared in Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Parker and Stone have backed off in a big way now that the U.S. really is invading other countries, never mentioning President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, or Richard Perle. The heroes of Team America: World Police may be marionettes, but Parker and Stone take care never to show who's pulling the strings.
The movie really cops out at the end, when Gary, the team's newest recruit, is forced to articulate the new global order to an assemblage of world leaders. Thrown for a loop, he improvises on an obscene spiel he picked up earlier from a barroom drunk: "We're dicks! We're reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks! And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don't like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes--assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with the assholes their way, but the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick with some balls. . . . I don't know much in this crazy, crazy world. But I do know that if you don't let us fuck this asshole, we're gonna have our dicks and our pussies all covered in shit."
That's the "crude but sensible spin on international relations" promised by Red Streak, and it's the only serious statement in a systematically snarky film. The Firefly Doctrine may prohibit pushing a political agenda, but that's different from having a perspective; without a fixed reference point, satire is impossible. Bigger, Longer & Uncut was juvenile in the noblest sense: appalled by their parents' war fever, the kids set out on a secret mission to rescue Terrance and Phillip and prevent Satan and Saddam Hussein from initiating the apocalypse. Team America: World Police is juvenile in the worst sense: confused and frightened by the adult world, and begging to be protected. If this is really the way young Americans view the world, maybe registering them to vote isn't such a hot idea after all.