Men Who Stare At Goats, The
George Clooney has proven he can go quirky, most notably in Coen Brothers fare such as BURN AFTER READING and O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, but also in more obscure films like WELCOME TO COLINWOOD. For the latest in his diverse filmography, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS mines Clooney’s comedic talents once again, bringing other actors into the mix which make it look like another creation from the minds of the Coen’s (especially with a Lebowski-like Jeff Bridges and Coen regular Stephen Root), but is instead directed by Clooney-collaborator Grant Heslov – who co-wrote GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK with Clooney. I guess Heslov won the coin flip for direction of this one, and what he has delivered is a war satire with comic elements carried off well by its actors, but whose message is peppered thick with inside jokes and is too many times heavy-handed (especially at the end). But for those who can put politics aside and just enjoy a collection of actors having fun with their material, never taking themselves too seriously, you may find an enjoyable film.
The film’s action takes place in 2003 and begins with a reporter out of Ann Arbor, Bill Wilton (Ewan McGregor), interviewing a man claiming to have been a member of a Psychic Spy unit for the Army, and he drops the name of the man he believed to be the ultimate psychic warrior, Lyn Cassady (Clooney). After a bizarre circumstance that leads his wife to leave him for a one-armed man (a small element of Coen-like absurdity), Bill believes he will prove something to himself and her by going to Iraq to be a war correspondent. In Kuwait, awaiting clearance to cross into Iraq, Bill meets Lyn Cassady and Lyn then spills the beans on the whole story behind the New Earth Army since its creation by soldier-turned-hippie-turned hippie/soldier Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). The training of the new psychic spies, called Jedi Warriors (and yes, people in the theaters always laugh when McGregor says “Jedi”), takes place in flashbacks and shows Django’s techniques for Jedi development and introduces Lyn’s psychic nemesis, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). In between the flashbacks, Lyn and Bill make their way into Iraq on an obscure mission which Lyn seems to be making up as he goes along, but also dropping little hints as to his psychic powers: cloud bursting, sparkling eyes, and of course the ability to stop the heart of a goat by simply staring at it. When the actual mission is finally discovered, we see that Hooper is working as a Psychic contractor working with the Army to use their powers against the Iraqi people, and Lyn and Bill must try to stop him.
The film’s star power carries its weight with great aplomb. Clooney plays the role perfectly, delivering every line with the conviction of a true believer in the goals and abilities of the New Earth Army, and also reacting to the wide array of circumstances that befall him with the right measures of mania (at times) and reserve (at others). Ewan McGregor starts off better than he finishes, and his narration is a bit off-putting, perhaps because of his American accent, which oddly enough wasn’t a problem in films like BIG FISH. Kevin Spacey has a variety of scenes showcasing diverse talents: from childish envy and spite directed at Lyn’s superior psychic powers; to the comical display of his own psychic power; to an evil, opportunistic contractor (take that Halliburton); to stoned. In a smaller role that delivered laughs simply in a look or a smile, Stephen Lang displays talents as the New Earth Army’s biggest supporter, General Hopgood, that warms us to him before we start to hate him later in James Cameron’s AVATAR. But the big show is the Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges, who’s Bill Django is great to watch in all stages. Some may say it’s Lebowski in the military, but it fits the role, and his work training the new members of the New Earth Army is hilarious to watch, especially in an initial exchange between him and Clooney which can’t help but get a good laugh.
However, the fact that we find out towards the end of the flick what the journey was all about in the first place, though it works in context of the story, doesn’t do much for an audience that doesn’t like to feel lost during the majority of the picture. Also, the flashbacks are great, especially the progression and training techniques of Jeff Bridges’ Django, but they are strewn throughout in such a way that detracts from the story. Also, while most of the films out of Hollywood may be anti-war, few of them are anti-soldier, and the end of this film may raise the debate as to whether that is part of the message. Granted, that might have been a consequence sticking with the source material – Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same name – but when Iraq War films do as bad as they do already, coming off as unsupportive of the troops may have fallout even with this film’s star power.