Director – Trey Parker, Screenplay – Trey Parker, Pam Brady & Matt Stone, Producers – Pam Brady, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, Photography – Bill Pope, Music – Harry Gregson-Williams, Visual Effects Supervisor – Eric Pascarelli, Visual Effects – Cinema Production Services Inc & CIS Hollywood (Supervisor – Brian Hirota), Puppets – Chiodo Brothers Productions Inc (Supervisor – Stephen Chiodo), Special Effects Supervisor – Joe Viskocil, Production Design – Jim Dultz. Production Company – Paramount/Scott Rudin
Trey Parker (Gary Johnston/Kim Jong Il/Joe/Tim Robbins/Sean Penn/Michael Moore//Hans Blix/Carson/Matt Damon/Helen Hunt), Kristen Miller (Lisa), Daran Norris (Spottswoode), Matt Stone (Chris/George Clooney/Matt Damon), Maasa (Sarah), Maurice LaMarche (Alec Baldwin), Phil Hendrie (I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E.)
Gary Johnston, one of the top actors in America, is approached by Spottswoode, head of the international hi-tech trouble-shooting organization Team America, and offered a job – that of becoming a spy in order to infiltrate a terrorist plot. Gary agrees and is surgically altered and sent to infiltrate a group of terrorists in Egypt. However, the operation goes wrong and ends in a massive shoot-up that destroys several Egyptian landmarks. The terrorists respond by setting off a bomb that blows up the Panama Canal. The Film Actors Guild, formed by various politically active Hollywood celebrities, leads a protest against Team America, blaming them for this. Gary quits Team America, believing everything to be his fault. The other members of Team America go into action, only to be shot down and captured by North Korean dictator Kim Il Jong, the mastermind behind the terrorist operation. Kim Il Jong calls a conference of F.A.G., which he plans to use as a cover to set off weapons of mass destruction worldwide, creating a 9/11 times a thousand. It is up to Gary to pull himself up out of an alcoholic slump and stop Kim Il Jong’s nefarious plan.
2004, being the era of one of the most hotly contested US Presidential elections in history, was a year where one of the most predominating cinematic trends suddenly became political documentaries, perhaps a reflection of the cold feet shown by mainstream tv news coverage in going for stories that in any way challenged the establishment. The way was paved by Michael Moore’s massively successful and extremely controversial evisceration of the Bush Presidency in the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). This was followed by a host of documentaries that offered highly critical attacks on the Bush Presidency, the Republican agenda and/or the conservative media bias, including Bush’s Brain (2004), Control Room (2004), Hijacking Catastrophe 9/11 (2004), The Hunting of the President (2004), Liberty Bound (2004), The Man Who Knew Bush (2004), Outfoxed (2004), Unconstitutional: The War on Civil Liberties (2004), Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004). These were invariably followed by several documentaries defending the conservative agenda, including America’s Heart and Soul (2004), Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die (2004), Farenhype 9/11 (2004) and Michael Moore Hates America (2004). Various political agendas even began to creep into fictional films like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Somewhere amidst this came Team America: World Police. Where most of these other films give the impression of being the equivalent of protest mobs lined up on either side of the political fence angrily waving placards, Team America: World Police feels like an irreverent prankster that has walked into the midst the fray and bared its buttocks to both sides.
Team America: World Police was made by the duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are best known as the creative talents behind tv’s cult animated series South Park (1997– ), a foul-mouthed, satiric look at smalltown life that comes in an entirely absurdist vein. The duo have expanded out onto the big-screen upon several prior occasions making films such as Alferd Packer: The Musical/Cannibal! The Musical (1996), Orgazmo (1997) about a Mormon porn star superhero and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999). They had previously ventured into political satire on the Bush White House in the short-lived live-action sitcom That’s My Bush! (2001). Parker and Stone’s humour tends to the undergraduate – much focus around kids saying foul things, sex, body functions and of people being gay. This would merely make them glorified variants on almost every other American stand-up comic, however South Park and their other works have a frequent sense of the utterly absurd. South Park has managed, for instance, to do everything from satirizing a number of political issues on both sides of the fence, as well as including appearances from Jesus Christ, Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson and a talking poo, while revealing that Satan and Saddam Hussein are lovers. The overriding sense that you might get from a marathon of the collected Parker-Stone works would be two guys in their early thirties, brimming over with a devilish sense of the irreverent and constantly looking for new ways to outrage those likely to take offence.
After watching Team America: World Police, it might be impossible to ever watch a Gerry Anderson puppet show in straight face again. (Mind you, that experience was ruined several months earlier by the big screen version of Thunderbirds ). Team America: World Police is a wicked parody of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1964-6). Parker and Stone say their inspiration for Team America came from watching Thunderbirds and then conceiving what a testosteronal Jerry Bruckheimer action film might be like acted out with puppets. Although, what Team America: World Police reminds of more than anything is Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles (1990). You could say that Team America: World Police is to Thunderbirds what Meet the Feebles was to The Muppet Show (1977-81) – that is to say both wilfully skewer the seriousness of the originals by putting the puppets through a barrage of scatological humour.
The extent that one ends up liking Team America: World Police or not is surely the entirety of the extent to which one finds such scatological humour funny. If you do not, then it is advised to give Team America a wide berth. There is a puppet vomiting scene that probably goes on well beyond the point that it has ceased to be funny; an amusing gag where the hero must prove that he can handle the mission by performing fellatio on the team leader; and a clever end speech where American gung ho militarism is justified as superior to liberalism in a truly mind-boggling metaphor that refers to the various sides as ‘dicks, pussies and assholes’ and sees the entire equation in terms of how one fucks the other. Although, the scene that caused the greatest outrage with the MPAA was the puppet sex scene. (It may say something about how conservative US mainstream cinema has become when the most sexually heated scene in a movie in 2004 was one that occurred between puppets).
Far more accomplished than the film’s scatological wit are Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s songs, which are positively hilarious. These range all the way from Kim Jong Il singing little lallated ditties about “how ronery” he is; a parody of the hit musical Rent (1994) with a song that goes on about how everybody is going to die of AIDS; the theme song that accompanies the Team as they go into action “Team America – fuck yeah!”; a number as Gary undergoes his training called We’re Going to Need a Montage; and especially a song that goes on about how bad Pearl Harbor (2001) was and how Ben Affleck needs to take acting lessons. The puppet effects are also highly accomplished. Though the film makes a virtue of letting us see the wires and even parodies the clumsy gait of Gerry Anderson puppets, the background sets and effects are top notch.
Perhaps the most contentious issue of Team America: World Police is not so much its puppets getting funky and being foul-mouthed but the political satire. Everywhere they go, Team America succeed in blowing up landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and Sphinx; UN weapons inspector Hans Blix is regarded as an ineffectual bureaucrat and ends up being fed to Kim Jong Il’s sharks; Michael Moore is featured as a junk food waving liberal who decides that he must become a suicide bomber and blow up the team’s base (reportedly a response to Trey Parker and Matt Stone being unhappy with the way Michael Moore portrayed them in Bowling for Columbine ); and the chief villains are Islamic terrorists and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il who is revealed as being a miniature alien invader in a post-credits song. However, the greatest target that Parker and Stone take aim at is actors who use their celebrity to take up liberal issues – in a characteristically Parker-Stone-esque gag, the group’s acronym is F.A.G. They happily name such celebrities – George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Helen Hunt, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv Tyler – with a particular skewering going out to Sean Penn (who was deeply offended about the portrait and wrote a well-publicized letter of rebuke) and Matt Damon’s intelligence.
I found Team America: World Police to be extremely funny but I also sat wondering what political positions Trey Parker and Matt Stone held in all of this. If anything, their view seems to be that both political sides – the gung-ho pro-American militarists and the liberal critics – are as bad as each other. I cannot say this is a position I feel entirely comfortable with. It is a position that feels like that of the person who never bothers to vote because they feel that it doesn’t matter who wins. South Park has intriguingly given birth to a new political label – the South Park Republican – which refers to someone who doesn’t agree with the moralistic wing of Republicanism and instead enjoys a hedonistic lifestyle, although shares many of their libertarian views and is more often concerned with ridiculing the excesses of the liberal left and Political Correctness. This, one suspects, is the real political agenda of Team America. If anything, the film ends up giving a justification of shoot–’em-up militaristic intervention. It is satirically regarded, but in the end the heroes’ side gets off lightly and the end speech sort of justifies it with the view that sometimes we might kill innocents but at least that is better than doing nothing, while the majority of the satiric targets are reserved for Hollywood liberals and UN bureaucrats.
It is hard to tell if that is the intended viewpoint or just a satiric position that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have adopted. Parker and Stone responded to such with a barrage of scorn poured on any serious political reading of Team America: World Police, claiming they are just making fun. This does seem disingenuous of them. You cannot get away with releasing a film two weeks before a political election that had the country hotly divided down both sides of the fence, where you satirize sides and name names, only to then turn around and ridicule people for getting upset about it. One gets the clear impression that what Parker and Stone set out to do is take aim at and offend as many targets as possible. One sees no particular problem with satirists doing so but it does seem a little gutless to then deny that that is what they are doing when people understandably get upset.