- The Men Who Stare At Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
Based on a book by Jon Ronson
Lyn Cassady – George Clooney
Bill Django – Jeff Bridges
Bob Wilton – Ewan McGregor
Larry Hooper – Kevin Spacey
Todd Nixon – Robert Patrick
Gen. Hopgood – Stephen Lang
Gus Lacey – Stephen Root
A Good Farce with a Great Cast
Imagine a world in which the military trains soldiers not to kill enemies of the state, but to infiltrate their minds with the Jedi mind trick. A different political and military climate in which soldiers in camo sport long hair, have dance parties, and hold daisies in their hands. A military unit in which recreational drugs enhance the training, where drills include psychic exercises and the Privates’ chakras are open to the world. Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats plops the audience into this seemingly alternate universe with the admonition that “more of this is true than you would believe.” The film is based on a synonymous non-fiction book by Jon Ronson that provides a comical look into the government’s struggle to exploit the paranormal to win wars.
A good part of the American population would likely watch George Clooney brush his teeth and be thrilled about it—the man oozes charisma from every pore. As Lyn Cassady, a former member of the disbanded New Earth Army, Clooney manages to take a completely preposterous character and lend warmth and seriousness to the role. Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton, whose marriage dissolved when his wife left him for his editor (who inexplicably has a weird black prosthetic hand, adding to the comic unreality of the situation). Wilton “went to war” to prove himself, landing practically in Cassady’s lap. Strange coincidences (or is it fate?) lead the duo on a voyage into the Iraqi desert while the film reveals the New Earth Army’s formation and dissolution.
Cassady’s tale exposes the travails of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who discovers that only 15-20% of new army recruits shoot to kill, while the others harbor an innate desire not to harm other humans. Armed with this statistic, Django wondered, “How could love and peace win wars?” With the question, there’s a striking insight into the American military system. How many people have pondered the notion, and for how long? There still isn’t a real solution—as evidenced by the book and the film. Django dives headfirst into the New Age movement (conveyed in an entertaining montage: The Hot Tub Exercise, the Beyond Jogging Exercise), and emerges a long-haired, gentle soul. His soldiers practice Tai Chi and yoga, dance to classic rock, and let their hair grow long. Adding a touch of reality to the subject matter, the film claims the Army’s slogan “Be All You Can Be” originated with the New Earth Army.
McGregor’s narration leads the audience on his journey from utter skepticism to complete conviction that why, yes, a person can affect the world around him with his brain. Along the way, Clooney steals scenes with his “sparkle eye technique” and his grizzled good looks. Hi-jinks ensue, and a number of strange occurrences gradually link together to form eerie evidence that perhaps there’s more to psychological warfare than forcing prisoners to listen to Barney the purple dinosaur.
The only particularly visually stimulating shot is the opening close-up of a Brigadier General (Stephen Lang) deep in concentration. The editing is fluid and invisible. While the story takes the driver’s seat, the stars hold the wheel. Clooney seems to be eminently comfortable playing comic characters who are a little off, and he performs soundly once again. Bridges imbues Bill with a sweet naiveté that contrasts hilariously when juxtaposed with the stringently regimented codes of the U.S. military. His performance is understated and funny, but he’s hard-pressed to top The Big Lebowski’s The Dude. McGregor plays second fiddle, but he does it well. Kevin Spacey lends his talent to the role of Larry Hooper, the driving force behind the decimation of the New Earth Army. Most of the roles Spacey chooses are slightly nefarious—and his deadpan, droll persona fits perfectly with this character (though he has one outright hilarious moment involving LSD and a gun).
Clooney and Heslov have a production company; last time they collaborated, Clooney directed and Heslov penned the script for Good Night, and Good Luck, a fantastic drama about another, more famous journalist. The Men Who Stare at Goats is an insightful (though slightly silly) glimpse into American military strategy, and it may be exactly what audiences need in the current political climate. Everyone involved seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself—and viewers will pick up on it. While it may not be the best movie of the year, it’s a smart caper with a great cast, and that will surely be enough to draw audiences.