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15 Years Later: ‘Team America’ is Like 2004 in Movie Form

In film culture these days, there’s a lot of attention paid to movies from the past — how they fit in with the times they came from, and how differently that they might register when viewed through the eyes of today. One movie in which the lens of 2019 is especially jarring is Team America: World Police, from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, which was released in 2004. It’s a movie that, for all of its virtues, is firmly embedded in the political moment of the period when it was made.

Using Supermarionation puppetry, Parker and Stone told a story about post-9/11 American military power that was largely a satire of Hollywood action tropes. It mostly took aim at the work of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, but was also like the South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut movie from five years earlier — a musical, with a suite of Parker-written original songs. 

The “Team America” of the title is a small military force that serves as a stand-in for the American military. They go around the world, fight terrorists and dictators, and engage in explosive action setpieces. They’re joined by Gary, a Broadway actor who is enlisted in order to infiltrate a terrorist cell. 

Team America was released three years after the 9/11 attacks and about 18 months after the invasion of Iraq. It was about the projection of American military power, and used as its primary villains former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, a collection of unnamed Islamic terrorists, and a coterie of Hollywood celebrities (Matt Damon, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin) who at the time were assailed from the right for their opposition to the Iraq War and Bush Administration. There’s no George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or even a U.S. military; Team America serves as a proxy for all of the above. 

Therefore, certain aspects of the film hold up better than others. The satire of ’90s action-adventure cinema is spot on, as Parker and Stone clearly know the Bruckheimer canon backwards and forwards, and expertly parody its tropes. There are certain moments that score big laughs, such as when Spottswoode, the team’s leader, is expected to give Gary a cyanide pill, but instead hands him a hammer. And the vomit scene may be the funniest in the history of movies. 

The puppetry finds just the right tone of absurdity — especially in the famously wild puppet sex scene — and the songs are mostly outstanding, from the inspired “Rent” parody “Everyone Has AIDS,” to the Michael Bay slam “Pearl Harbor Sucked And I Miss You,” to the film’s signature tune, “America, Fuck Yea.” “Freedom Isn’t Free” is also a decent parody of the run of Toby Keith-like “patriotic” country songs from the post-9/11 period. 

On the other hand, Team America was very much of a political moment that’s long since passed, when the mood in America was for endless war and questioning the patriotism (and yes, the manhood) of anyone who disagreed. One could make the argument that Team America is satirizing the militaristic love for war that was so prevalent in the culture at the time, but there’s much about the film that plays along with those tropes rather than mocking them. 

The plot entails nuclear conspiracies between North Korea and Muslim terrorists, and supposed support for terrorists by Hollywood were the subject of Fox News fever dreams circa the 2004 election, but never came to pass.

Team America, in a strikingly ham-fisted way, vilifies the Hollywood actors as dimwitted, America-hating goons for the sin of opposing the Iraq War, and Parker does most of their voices himself. The film also presents the actors as the “Film Actors Guild (FAG),” a joke that was pretty ghastly even for 2004. Not to defend all of the political forays of the likes of Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn and Michael Moore, but they were right about Iraq. 

Then there’s the “dicks, pussies and assholes” speech, which bears a more-than-striking resemblance to completely earnest “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs” speech delivered by the father of Chris Kyle in American Sniper

The portrayals of Kim Jong-Il and the Muslim characters, meanwhile, are fairly gross racial caricatures. Even The Interview, a film that depicted the actual assassination of Kim’s son and successor Kim Jong-un, gave Kim enough dignity to avoid mocking his accent. 

Looking back years later, with a bipartisan consensus having emerged about the futility of the Iraq War and other open-ended military interventions, Team America is a useful look at a time radically different from today. But the South Park movie actually holds up better.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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