Stoner buddies reflect a broader satirical trend

Review by Dani Barley

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Starring John Cho, Kal Penn, and Neil Patrick Harris
Directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Runtime 102 minutes

Who could have thought after 2004’s hazy, smoke-filled movie, that pot-obsessed friends Harold and Kumar (and the production team behind Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) could have produced what is, at some points, one of the most bitingly honest and satirical films about the “War on Terror” produced for a mainstream audience?

Of course, let’s not forget for a moment that Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is first and foremost a gross-out, stoner film of the silliest kind. However, the political commentary, interspersed with fart jokes, reflects an interesting trend among the US entertainment industry to no longer bite their tongue about the farce that is the Bush administration and its War on Terror — a marked change following the immediate post-9/11 red, white and blue landscape.

First, the film itself. The basic goes thus — Harold and Kumar, while on a plane to Amsterdam, are mistakenly accused of trying to blow up the plane when Kumar is seen trying to light up his smokeless bong by an elderly white woman who was convinced that he was a terrorist from the moment he set foot on the plane. This mishap lands them in a fictionalised version of the US military’s Guantanamo Bay detention centre. They escape and tag along with some fleeing Cubans to Florida and then make their way to Texas to meet a friend with family ties to the Justice Department who can clear their name.

Along the way they encounter a drunken KKK rally, inbred rednecks, doomed wildlife, George Dubya Bush, and a drugged out Neil Patrick Harris (playing himself and having far too much fun in the role.) All the while they must stay under the radar of the psychotic undersecretary of homeland security, Ron Fox, who is every negative stereotype of a bad cop and a true believer of the lies peddled to the American people post-9/11 rolled into one. It’s in the Fox role that co-directors and screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg get to make some of their most searing satirical points, in an unabashed and tongue firmly in cheek fashion. When Harold asks Fox for their phonecall after being taken in to custody, Fox replies with the all the zealotry of a madman: “Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’m sorry. You want rights now. You want freedoms. Right now. Is it time? Is it freedom o’clock?”

While this film makes some apt political observations about the US and its War on Terror (and who the real problems are), the film isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily offended. What’s most heartening is that this film is the latest in an ever-growing list of films and television programs standing up and pointing out the hypocrisy and lies being thrown by Washington to the broader US public.

Leading the charge has been The Daily Show (and its spin-off, The Colbert Report). Jon Stewart and company found themselves the unintended keepers of mainstream US political satire after they dubbed their 2000 election coverage “Indecision 2000” — months before the hanging chads of Florida became a common late-night punchline. Since then, they have honed their satirical funnybones in a way that would make Australia’s Chaser team look like a pack of amateur school boys trying to crack jokes at their school talent show.

Highly critical and frequent lampooners of the Bush administration from the moment the Supreme Court declared Bush victorious in the Florida election, The Daily Show, filmed in New York City, took a markedly different approach to politics in post-9/11 America. Their satire was still present, but largely toned down to be more palatable for the same audience that gave President Bush the highest ever approval ratings recorded for a president. The satirical ceasefire came to an official end with Bush’s insistence on the invasion of Iraq. In one show, host Jon Stewart quipped, “In Iraq, the US military’s whack-a-mole approach to killing Saddam Hussein may have finally paid off ... The bombs destroyed the area and left behind a 60-foot crater, or as coalition forces prefer to call it: a freedom hole.”

The Daily Show was one of the first to point out, using archived clips from the major news sources, the pathetic hypocrisy of this year’s presidential election when the Republicans rallied behind vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin crying sexism against her critics who noted her meagre political experience while similar observations landed Hilary Clinton with the label of “whiner”. Similar points using their own words against them were made about McCain’s “maverick” moniker in a segment that pitted John McCain circa 2008 against John McCain circa 2000. Perhaps the most apt observation during the Republican convention occurred during one of the many long-winded speeches praising McCain’s status as a former prisoner of war. Stewart observed: “Yes, yes! John McCain is a great leader because he endured five and a half years of brutal treatment by his captors ... Hey, Guantanamo Bay isn’t a prison, it’s a leadership academy!”

No discussion of US political satire can pass without a nod to Saturday Night Live, which experienced a heyday of its own under the direction of head writer Tina Fey. Always rich with apt impersonations of America’s political leaders since its debut in 1975, the overt commentary really came to the fore under Fey’s lead and pulled no punches — “A new poll shows that 66% of Americans think President Bush is doing a poor job on the war in Iraq. And the remaining 34% think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church.”

It’s not just the small screen taking the piss; the big screen has had its share as well. Most notably in 2004’s puppet-helmed Team America: World Police by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, better known as the creators of South Park. Not one to take sides with their criticism of US culture, Team America took shots at both the “America — fuck yeah!” mentality of the War on Terror and crusading Hollywood liberals. However, to dismiss the film entirely would be a mistake as it does provide an insight into contradictions in Washington’s attempt to act as world capitalism’s cop. The fact that this film came out only three years after the 9/11 attacks is also impressive given the self-censorship that followed in the immediate aftermath — from the passive (the removal of shots of the Twin Towers from films such as Zoolander and Spiderman) to the more overt (the year-long delay of the release of Phillip Noyce’s movie version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American).

One can only hope there will be more films to follow the lead of their television brethren and satirise the US establishment while trying to keep a straight face. Until then, Australians will have to try to enjoy the films we’re given and head to the internet (namely YouTube) for the better satire.