The Lost America of Team America

As the geopolitical satire turns 10, it reminds of how much the world has and hasn't changed.


To remember what the world felt like to a lot of people in the fall of 2004, look no further than the opening scene of Team America: World Police, the South Park-driven marionette action spoof/international affairs crash course/musical that was released during one of the most divisive election seasons ever.

Islamic terrorists are just about to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in Paris before an elite squad of swaggering American puppet commandos confront them. The Americans foil the terrorists' designs, but not without also laying to fiery waste the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre.

After all the terrorists are dead (one is blasted through the window of a baguette shop) and the Parisians look around mouth-agape at their half-demolished city, one member of Team America gives his Patton speech: "Bonjour, everyone! Don't worry, everything is bon! We stopped the terrorists."

And so begins a satirical onslaught in which the denizens of the American military-industrial complex and the hyper-patriotic balladeers of the post-9/11 era are skewered just as viciously for their parochial crudeness as Hollywood elites and the international community are slammed for their sanctimony and fecklessness. In spite of all the caricatures and scatological humor, the crowning achievement is that many took Team America's depiction of the moment seriously.

At the time, critic David Edelstein dubbed Team America "a stink bomb lobbed at American arrogance and overweening militarism." The film would also make an appearance on The National Review's list of 25 "Best Conservative Movies," where it was lauded in blurb for its "utter disgust with air-headed, left-wing celebrity activism."

As voters head to the polls on Tuesday, many of the issues that were both so consuming and combustible back in 2004 seem largely absent from the political terrain. (Remember the time that 11 different states passed a gay marriage ban in one day?) But, perhaps, nowhere is the gulf between then and now more evident than in the way we talk about America's place in the world, a divide that was the focal point of Team America.

The primary villains in Team America are a consortium of Islamic terrorists and the now-deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Together, they plot to set off nuclear weapons across the globe in order to reset the world's balance of power. The only thing standing in their way is Team America, volcanic embodiers of the Freedom-Isn't-Free mantra, who must win in battle both against the terrorists as well as public-opinion wars against the international community and Hollywood pacifists (led by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, and others).

Unlike the Hollywood players, no American politicians of the era are specifically called out by name in the film. But the film still offers a familiar rebuke.  The more damage caused to civilian life and infrastructure—notable Cairo landmarks and the Panama Canal are also razed—the more isolated Team America becomes. Wistful for a remembrance of that conversation? Consider this A.O. Scott comment in his review:

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. This is not a trivial moral distinction, and it is one the film hangs onto in impressive earnest.

In 2014, a once-prevailing jingoistic "With-Us-or-Against-Us" attitude has been effaced as a war-weary president anchors the promise of action against a terrorist group like ISIS to an accompanying pledge to not commit ground troops to the cause. That an American president is now routinely criticized for not waging war robustly enough seems a surreal contrast when compared to 2004.

The flip side of that go-it-alone sensibility has a lot to do with the growing perception that America is no longer the sole, dominant power in a unipolar world. That certainly wasn't the case in 2004 when many felt the helplessness of the international community was on full display.

In one (very NSFW) scene, Team America captures that dynamic as Hans Blix, the former Swedish diplomat and one-time head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confronts Kim Jong-il about his suspected nuclear arsenal.

Hans Blix: Let me see your whole palace or else.

Kim Jong-il: Or else what?

Hans Blix: Or else we will be very, very angry with you and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are.

Blix is then summarily fed to a group of hungry sharks. But the fact that there was Hans Blix bit at all is also slightly incredible. With all due respect to Yukiya Amano, it seems unfathomable that the head of the IAEA would be a household name today.

Team America ends after the lead member of the squad delivers a speech featuring an allegory about the more delicate interplay of human anatomy to convince an assembly of international delegates to turn against Kim Jong-il. A.O. Scott wrote that the monologue "ought to be chiseled in the entry hall of the United Nations."

Not nearly the same degree of speechifying is needed to rally the international community these days. The attitudes of the America in Team America have, depending on your take, either tempered or weakened in response to the ongoing crises in the world. A good part of what has changed is exactly what made the America of then, both left and right, so worthy of satire.

In its place, long-sought international coalitions have helped piece together sanctions against Russia (for its actions in Ukraine) and Iran (for its nuclear program) with an efficacy that is now the topic of debate. The American battle against ISIS is another effort that enjoys unlikely support.

Last week, Canada (long the butt of South Park jokes) launched its first airstrikes against Islamic State installations, joining the United Kingdom, Australia, and a number of Arab states in the campaign. Oh, and France. France has come around too.