Attack of the Puppet People

Team America's critical mess: How reviewers misread the year's most potent political satire

"I really do not think terrorism is funny," sputtered a senior White House adviser to Matt Drudge this summer, "and I would suggest Paramount give respect to those fighting and sacrificing to keep America safe. This is just unconscionable. Not funny."

The question about Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionette cocktail Team America: World Police isn't whether or not it's funny—even the Bush flunky might admit to being reduced to reptile-brain guffaws once he actually sees the film. The authentic question remains: Who is this movie taking aim at, and with what guns? Madly Rorschachian, TAWP appears to rub its shitty boots on U.S. militarism as well as Hollywood liberals, Arabs as well as the blinkered American perception of Arabs, unilateral destruction and Kim Jong Il. Is it just an Uzi spray of yuks or are there right and wrong ways to read it?

You'd think critics would be stimulated by a film loaded with so much nervy, discussable stuff. But they seem flabbergasted, producing some of the most ludicrous reviews of the new decade. The Post's Megan Lehmann seemed unfazed from her seat at the Rupert Murdoch Ministry of Truth, assessing the film's farcical mayhem (the heedless decimation of Cairo and Paris, for example) at the hands of patently jingoistic puppets as "a remarkably sensible, even optimistic, worldview that lets some air out of the inflated state of the current political climate." Roger Ebert tossed a fit for the other camp, growling that the filmmakers "may be right that some of us are puppets, but they're wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn't matter."

Parker posing with Kim Jong II
photo: Paramount Pictures
Parker posing with Kim Jong II

Some reviewers—including the Voice's J. Hoberman—read the movie as right-wing, but its representational chicanery has driven many to distraction. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers celebrated the fact that "the film targets a clear and present danger: liberal Hollywood," daring to turn Janeane Garofalo "into a puppet and blow her head clean off. Sweet." The dissonance reached a kind of solemn acme with A.O. Scott's review in the Times, which suggested that the fuck-you puppet Kim's plot for world domination might reflect reality, and that the movie is to some extent intended as a straight action film. "When Team America blows things up in other countries, they do it by accident, in the course of their sloppy but zealous fight against the people who want to do it on purpose. . . . The obscene patriotic ditty that is the Team America theme song might be hyperbolic (and impossible to stop singing), but it is not sarcastic. Nor is a speech [about dicks fucking pussies and assholes]. . . . [I]t is one of the more cogent—and, dare I say it, more nuanced—defenses of American military power that I have heard recently."

Not sarcastic? Cogent? It's possible that the muddle of interpretations is partially responsible for the film's mediocre box office performance. Parker and Stone's interviews don't help—the boys are inherently incapable of attributing larger sardonic meaning to anything they do, wisely characterizing their approach as fifth-grade potshots lest they be accused of grandstanding.

The question is as old as Voltaire's wig powder: How close can you get to what you're satirizing before the line between target and vilifier all but disappears? Indeed, Scott's review could be read as straight on—that is, certifiably absurd—or a spoof itself. Of course, puppetry, a dramatic form with a built-in diegetic remove, has a 500-year-old history of socially subversive comedy. The very presence of ludicrous marionettes performing atrocities insists on a derisive agenda and an ideological response. Or so you'd think. No one mistook Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) as a cheer for the arms race, but his anti-military rip Full Metal Jacket (1987) was not widely perceived as a satire, and emerged in the culture afterward as a set of armed-forces catchphrases and gung ho clichés. Few know this dynamic's double edge better than Paul Verhoeven, whose Starship Troopers (1997) made an even bloodier hash of U.S. might-is-right than TAWP, and yet was largely seen as a failed hairy-chested action film.

Like South Park, TAWP seems to me a fairly consistent attack on Middle American slope-headedness, reproaching the millions of Bush voters for their love of balls-out martial power, their gut-level xenophobia, their suspicion that "durka durka!" is an accurate-as-far-as-it-matters facsimile of how Arabs speak, their instinctive hatred for outspoken liberal celebrities, and of course, their ardor for Jerry Bruckheimer movies. Being professional sophomores, Parker and Stone may very well fall into the demographic they're mocking without being aware of it. Even so, let's not forget that the instruments at deliberate use are bleeding, cumming, vomiting, cocksucking puppets. How the dick-pussy-asshole speech can be heard as anything but a burlesque of barroom nationalism is beyond me. Because the movie doesn't trust the average American citizen, it's a sharper election year prod than The Manchurian Candidate. Parker and Stone aren't the first satirists to underestimate their own aggression or be accused of selling what they're telling us not to buy.

 
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