‘Team America’ at 15: hilarious satire or nihilistic nonsense?

Does the world really need a film that punches down with the same force as up?

2004 wasn’t half strange. A landscape of Cartman piggy banks. Charity shops stuffed to the brim with cracked Bridget Jones DVDs. Arguments about who was in and who was out of your MySpace top friends. Amongst it all, a host of voices tried to make sense of the global chaos that began on the morning of September 11th 2001 – and by 2004 had burrowed deep into the public consciousness.

Conceived by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Team America: World Police was the product of two such voices. The X-rated comedy used puppets to satirise America’s unofficial role as global cops, but also the action movies of Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich et al. Oh, and if the film could settle a few scores along the way – South Park had pissed off several Hollywood A-listers in its first run – well, that was fine with them.

“We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore,” said Stone of the film’s portrayal of the left-wing filmmaker as a hotdog-obsessed suicide bomber. At the time, Moore was riding a wave of critical acclaim for his conspiracy-fuelled documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. “I did an interview [with him], and he didn’t mischaracterise me or anything I said in Bowling for Columbine [Moore’s film about gun control, released in 2002]. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon… [entitled A Brief History of the United States of America, written by Moore, animated and directed by Harold Moss].”

Team America

Settling scores: South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a “very specific beef” with filmmaker Michael Moore.

Note to self. Never cross Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Especially if you’re Matt Damon. Their depiction of the actor as a simpleton whose vocabulary doesn’t extend past repeating his own name made it impossible for Damon to go outside for years. Lest some bright spark spot him and shout “Maaaaaatt Daaaaamon!” across the street. “I was always bewildered by that,” responded the Oscar winner in 2006. Later, Parker and Stone explained that the puppet they were using “looked kind of mentally deficient” – and so they ran with it.

Other targets in Team America include then-North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and literally any celebrity who spoke out against the Iraq War. Sean Penn – so incensed by the scene in the movie in which he is eaten by Kim’s pet panthers – would pen Parker and Stone a succinct note which read simply, “fuck you”.

15 years on – a milestone the parody hits this week in the States – it remains a sometimes thrilling, yet often jarring watch. The scene in which Broadway actor Gary – who has been tasked with infiltrating an alliance of terrorists – spends five whole minutes vomiting in a back alley, is so genuinely distasteful it’s almost exciting. This is exacerbated during an era when many are so cautious not to offend. And yet the film is offensive, even by the standards of 2004. The Film Actors Guild joke (the acronym is ‘FAG’) was appalling at the time, let alone now. While Kim’s performance of the song ‘I’m So Ronery’ (because, huh huh, south Asian people enunciate words differently) and a glitzy showtune about AIDS are exactly the reason why so many of us have got tired of jokes that don’t punch up, but aim for below the knees.

It’s quite remarkable just how nastily Team America: World Police comes across now, a decade-and-a-half on. “On one level, it’s a big send-up,” Parker and Stone’s longterm writing partner Pam Brady said at the time, using the sort of vernacular that creators use when they don’t want to consider the effect words and actions have on their audience. “But on another, it’s about foreign policy.” Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by the spite prevalent throughout. The apolitical nihilism of South Park’s potshots have long been celebrated by people who believe in and care about nothing. Both Parker and Stone have long described themselves as libertarians, with Stone once declaring: “I hate Conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals”. And yet Team America: World Police is a film that is trying to say something – just not what you think.

Team America

Pupper leader: ex-North Korean premier Kim Jong-il in ‘Team America: World Police’.

Rather than declaring ‘fuck the war’ and ‘down with the intervention of superpowers’; Team America essentially concedes that, for all their flaws, the world needs satire like this. It is a film that says, ‘be afraid of the foreign menace’. It’s a film that hates celebrities teetering on a soap box far more than it does the idea of young men being flown home in bodybags. It’s a film that doesn’t much care about the world and has no idea how to make it better. It’s the equivalent of that kid at school who sniggers when a classmate trips or falls down, without offering to help afterwards. It’s a film that has no heart, and yet – unlike the Tin Man from Oz – doesn’t care one jot.

Maybe that was never Team America‘s job. But it’s still disappointing that we took so long to realise.