Back in August of 2019, The New York Times released “The 1619 Project”, named for the year in which the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia. The project sought to reframe the history of the United States, positing that the USA as we know it was founded on slavery, and not on the Declaration of Independence adopted in the summer of 1776. This predictably resulted in an immediate firestorm of controversy — most notably, the Trump Administration had the heaving hairy balls to release “The 1776 Project” on MLK Day.
This is only one episode of a heated and contentious discussion that’s been ongoing for at least the past several years. In recent memory, there’s been some high-profile pushback against everything from the traditional Thanksgiving origin story (ie: Native American residents and European colonists setting down for a hearty meal instead of a bloodbath), to when slavery really ended in the Civil War’s aftermath (Juneteenth is now a national holiday!), to public ignorance of racist atrocities in our nations past. (Tulsa, anyone?) And of course that’s not even getting started on a little thing called “Hamilton”, a show that cast our white slaveowning founders as people of color to no small controversy, even and especially among the far left. For the past several months, various state and federal politicians on every level of our government have called for laws against “critical race theory” in education, attempting to recenter our nation’s history around the white Founding Fathers while downplaying the oppression and cruelty done in their name.
The point being that American history is a highly controversial subject right now. There’s the one side that wants to talk about the USA’s history of racism — due in no small part to the fact that so many non-white non-male Americans are still living under marginalization and oppression for reasons that can be traced back directly to our nation’s founding — and there’s the side that wants to hold onto the idealized and uber-patriotic vision of America as the greatest nation in the history of the world.
So here’s America: The Motion Picture, in which a director/exec producer of “Archer” and the guy who wrote all three Expendables movies present a laughably jingoistic parody of America’s founding. This is a movie that begins with a beer pong game between Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock over who gets to put the finishing touches on the Declaration, just before all three of them are brutally killed when Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) storms in with an army of redcoats and blows up the Continental Congress in a massive explosion.
Also, George Washington (voiced by Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) are both simultaneously alive, and they’re best friends. Oh, and Benedict Arnold is a werewolf.
It’s a premise rife with potential for satire, taking the right-wingers’ vision of American history to the most absurd extreme possible. Yes, this is most certainly an “America First” vision of history that puts our Founding Fathers in the best possible light. But do we really want this movie taught in schools as legitimate history? At what point does historical revisionism get too far out of hand?
For instance, if some teacher or politician said “Abraham Lincoln got his throat ripped out by a werewolf at the start of the Revolutionary War”, how many would accept that as the God’s honest truth, in spite of all logic and evidence? How many would genuinely believe it? How many would demand concrete evidence to disprove that notion? Would it be a campaign issue along partisan lines, with debates between “experts” who claim to be competent adults?
And again, Thomas Jefferson was explicitly murdered just after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Even a ten-year-old would know that means he couldn’t live to be the nation’s third president. That’s the level of intelligence we’re dealing with here.
As if to emphasize the point, our patriotic founding fathers are depicted as self-centered ignoramuses who get by on charisma, good looks, and sheer brute force. It’s a whole movie about characters too self-righteous and stupid to realize how self-righteous and stupid they are. It’s a movie with a strictly binary morality, in which America is good and pure and everyone else is pure evil, all for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
What’s more — for better or worse — very little defines our country like Hollywood movies. It’s arguably our greatest national export, and so much of our culture/propaganda has been shaped by the likes of Michael Bay, Clint Eastwood, Roland Emmerich, etc. So of course the film leans into parodies of those filmmakers and their threadbare tropes. One prominent example comes early on when Lincoln gets a drawn-out death speech even as his throat is spurting gallons of blood for several minutes.
In short, to paraphrase something Lin-Manuel Miranda often said of “Hamilton”, what we’ve got here is a story of America then as told by America now. Specifically, as told by the dumbest and loudest people of America now, and with only the most brain-dead tongue-in-cheek pretense of historical accuracy.
Probably the best demonstration of the film’s self-awareness and outright disregard for accuracy is Thomas Edison. Yes, Thomas freaking Edison is alive to help with the goddamn American Revolution. And she’s a Chinese woman voiced by Olivia Munn. Even the other characters have to point out how impossibly absurd this is, and Edison herself brushes it off with no more explanation than “fucking deal with it.”
At least the Chinese woman and the Native American ally (Geronimo, voiced by Raoul Max Trujillo) provide a vehicle for commentary on the willfully ignorant white American patriarchy. In particular, the beer-chugging Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) and the horse-racing dope Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan) share a “racist” pun that had me rolling on the floor in laughter.
(Side note: The actual Geronimo was an Apache, and Trujillo is an actual descendant of the Apache tribe. Kudos for that casting choice.)
Speaking of which, there does get to be a point when it seems like the filmmakers lose track of the joke and it’s not clear how self-aware the film really is. A prime example comes when Washington tries to convince his colleagues to attack a bar loaded with redcoats. And the bar is called… wait for it, wait for it… “Vietnam”. Cue the commentary about how barging in there with guns a-blazing would likely be a tactical blunder with years-long ramifications.
Not that the commentary is wrong or anything, but is this the same jingoistic hyper-parody of American patriotism I was watching half an hour ago?
But then comes the one-hour mark, in which a character says of white people, “you wanna get through to them, you’d have to put your message in, like, I don’t know, the dumbest thing possible, like a cartoon or something.” I just heard something break, and I can’t quite tell if it’s the movie or my brain.
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Simon Pegg once again proves himself a spectacularly underrated voice actor in the role of King James. And speaking of underrated talents, Judy Greer — always a welcome presence — is on hand to voice Martha Washington.
(Side note: Par for the course with this movie, Washington immediately gets his wife pregnant the minute they first have sex. Though the real Martha Washington had four children from a previous marriage — all of whom were dead by their teenage years — it bears remembering that George Washington himself never had any biological children.)
The animation is spectacular. I absolutely love this fluid 2D-look, and the movements are uncannily detailed. As for the music… well, this is a movie that features a cover of the Axel Foley Theme. As with so much of this movie, I can’t tell if that’s stupidly awesome or awesomely stupid.
I was on the fence about this movie right up until the end. The deciding factor was always going to hinge on whether or not the film had anything genuinely intelligent — or at the very least, heartfelt — to say about America. (By which I mean the real America, apart from this revised history bullshit.) Is there anything sincerely patriotic and uplifting in here, something we can hold onto that makes us proud to be Americans and hopeful for the nation’s future? Is there any kind of incisive satire pointing out some way that we can push ourselves to be better?
…Well, no. Not really, no. In fact, based on that last-minute sour-note ending, it seems like the whole film is predicated on the notion that we’re a nation of argumentative idiots and we’re doomed to mess this whole thing up. Like the filmmakers needed a 98-minute movie to tell us that?
America: The Motion Picture is a swing and a miss. It’s an aggressively stupid and boldly irreverent film made by talented and intelligent individuals, and I can respect a movie that goes this hard without any hint of an apology. But if I’m going to rot my brain this badly for so much intentionally offensive cinema, I’m gonna need more to show for it than a few cheap laughs. Alas, I’m sorry to say that there is no medicine to go with all the sugar this film shovels out.
The film had everything it needed, except a coherent point. And there were so many points this movie could’ve made, I have no idea how that could’ve been the one way the filmmakers came up short. Sorry, but there’s no recommendation for this one.