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February 09, 2005

Team America: World Police - Trey Parker

Posted by Richard D. North

Team America: World Police
Directed by Trey Parker
certificate 15, 2004

It's always tricky, getting serious about trivia. So before we do, let's just mark your card about Team America. It's a cracking, arch skit on popular culture and its manufacturers. Movies, musicals and the thesps who appear in them are all parodied with something more than knockabout bravura, of which there's at least plenty and possibly too much. If your inner schoolboy doesn't go out with you these days, stay at home. This movie uses the same visual gag about sick that was funny (just the once) in Little Britain, and plenty of other low comedy. But the slapstick is backed up by subtler stuff. We have, for instance, Kim Jong Il scrambling his L's and R's, but also doing so in a lovely mock-Broadway song. He gets some great running gags. That said, it's not a vastly satisfying enterprise.

Team America comes from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who between them wrote and directed (and voiced much of) this "Thunderbirds" lookalike. This brings the advantage that it seems authored: there's a signature on the project, and that's rather comforting. It also means that its target audience knows what to expect. These are the makers of the TV cartoon series South Park, a show which is sometimes taken as showing how toughly anti-PC the twenty-somethings are. It hasn't been my scene, so I can't say whether it reinforces my take on the young. This is that they do indeed reject much of the PC orthodoxy, but they can be very picky and prickly with it. The worst of their situation seems to be that they have a good deal of cynicism and scepticism and rather wish there was something and somebody big and serious – self-evidently mature and old-fashioned - they could take on trust. My generation had the grown-ups and their institutions: people who had fought in wars and built welfare states, for good or ill, and had a state and "Establishment" apparatus of real quality. This lot have pundits and politicians whose habitat is sofas, and that somehow isn't the same, even when they're on about war, or send people to war, or reforming welfare. Team America is like it is because it panders to a generation which isn't shy, but has no heroes.

The movie at least admits that, as personified by these "Thunderbirds" World Police, the US military project has its heart in the right place. So far, so Wilsonian, in the foreign policy wonk's patter. Still, in this movie, the US's incompetence badly vitiates its virtuousness, so we're back in the territory occupied rather ingloriously by most of the media's intelligentsia.

Condemned to admire nothing, the film is hard-hitting in all directions. Right at the start Team America blow away several French cultural icons before whacking only a few of the wild-eyed terrorists who have infiltrated the boulevards. Nice touch that: the cheese-eating surrender monkeys are every red-blooded hawk's betes noires and not least because of their exceptionalism, which is, well, infuriatingly cultured. (The wild-eyed terrorists are, by the way, inspired: puppets have staring eyes which fix you with an unseeing stare: so the rag-heads are here presented with a super-fixity of glare, and the camera lingers for a split second like a rabbit in headlamps to make the point.)

We know we are in Post Modern territory because the opening shot is of a marionette show which is revealed to be worked by puppeteers who are themselves puppets, because – of course – that's all there are, children. And we aren't surprised then when the big joke in the movie is that Team America needs an actor because its beefy heroics aren't working. Wanted: a nice dim actor too vain to resist being turned into a hero. Naturally, an intelligent actor won't do. In so far as they exist, Team America knows that they are likely to be the opinionated members of FAG (the Film Actors' Guild), and fighting for the other side. There are some great riffs here, as we see Sean Penn eulogising Saddam's Iraq, flowing with milk and honey.

But the best gags are deeply interior. Not the strutting dictators, nor the holy showfolk fools, nor the Thunderbird mayhem, nor the unhinged refuseniks are the real butt of the movie. The gloopy sludge of mass culture is. A newly-widowed special forces girl (her face is an amalgam of Paltrow and Blanchett), says:

"It's too early for me to have feelings for you".
The agent who's trying to lay her replies:
"But perhaps that's why we call them feelings, because we can't control them".
Even better: one character is surprised by someone's plausibility.
"That's why we call it acting",
says their interlocutor. Wham. The other day, Richard and Judy (Channel 4) were interviewing the actress Ren้e Zellweger (Nurse Betty, Bridget Jones) and she was absolutely the girl next door. When she'd done, Richard turned to his wife and said something very like:
"What a wonderful girl. Completely natural".
Yeah right: and how could you tell?

Team America has great gags in which famous actors talk tripe about war and stuff. But it reinforces these passages with patches of dialogue which beautifully mock the victimish, New Age emptiness of the manliest blockbuster.

This enormous strength of the film is also its weakness. It knows that Hollywood's products are movies and movie-stars and they are alike prone to amiable clap-trap. But knowing about La-la Land doesn't say much about the real world.

I loved Dr Strangelove when I first saw it, though it was an anti-war film. I was then and am now an armchair supporter of the official American mainstream take on the wars and stand-offs of my post-WWII world. I suppose that means that I could have liked Team America even if its take was anti-war. I would obviously have liked it all the more if it had contrived to be solidly pro-war. But it's neither. These Thunderbirds aren't heroes, but fodder for knockabout, and in the year the real Team America has shed a good deal of blood so brave Iraqis can vote, I could have done with satire so brave it was partisan. But that would have involved challenging the scepticism of its core demographic, and – as blockbuster-makers have always known – that's a place you do not go.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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I must admit I thought it was profoundly pro-American and pro-War. I thought it was very clever to make a movie in which the heroes do make mistakes. I thought it was a wonderful rebuttal to the anti-War crowd for whom every military action that errs from absolute perfection is a war crime.

Indeed the final "PDA" speech rather put me in mind of "Howard's End".

Posted by: Patrick Crozier at February 11, 2005 03:18 AM
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