Anchor Bay // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 23rd, 2010
"The U.S. Army doesn't really have any serious alternative than to be wonderful. This does not represent the official position of the United States Army at this time."
The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on the 2004 book, written by Jon Ronson, about the recent history of paranormal and psychological experimentation by the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, the film isn't nearly as interesting as that sounds. It tries to cram in too much information -- jumping around between characters and timelines in such a way that, no matter what you like best about the movie, there isn't nearly enough of it. At the same time, it also adds to Ronson's research, inventing a plot to tie the whole thing together. The end result is a frustrating film that trades a strange-but-true history of government-sanctioned weirdness for a Hollywood ending dripping with an anti-war message.
Even still, Goats has enough to recommend it. It has a supporting cast populated by big name actors like Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey. The screenplay is full of an easy humor that keeps its political messaging from feeling too oppressive (until the very end). Plus, it's a beautiful film. Director Grant Heslov and cinematographer Robert Elswit make this one of the few recent war films to steer clear of gritty realism.
When we meet Ann Arbor reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish), he is interviewing author Gus Lacey (Stephen Root, Pushing Daisies) who claims to have psychic powers. He tells an incredulous Wilton that he learned the ability when he took part in a secret military operation. When Wilton's wife leaves him, he tries to win her respect by heading off to cover the just-started Iraq War, only to find that becoming an embedded reporter isn't as easy as it sounds. While cooling his heels at a Kuwait hotel, he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, Up in the Air), a psychic supersoldier that Lacey told him about during their interview. He convinces Cassady to let him tag along with him into Iraq. Along the way, Cassady tells Wilton the story of the New Earth Army -- a peace-focused initiative started by enlightened Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart). Through a series of flashbacks intercut with Wilton and Cassady's own misadventures, we learn about how the New Earth Army was founded, and how its original intentions were subverted by an ambitious psychic soldier named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty), who turned the tables on Django and convinced the military to use the NEA as an offensive weapon capable of, among other things, staring at goats long enough to stop their hearts.
All you have to do to get excited about The Men Who Stare At Goats is to look at the DVD cover. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey? Yes, please! That excitement carries through a first half hour packed with hushed intimations about psychic supersoldiers and secret missions. Before long, though, it becomes clear that the movie is less interested in classified army projects than the audience is. This is a movie about men of enlightenment trying to derail the military war machine, and pushes everything else to the side to promote its message of peace.
In his career, Ewan McGregor has played everything from a drug addict to Obi-Wan Kenobi. His thin frame and skill at acting confused makes him the perfect choice for this movie (the fact that the psychic soldiers are called "Jedi" is a happy coincidence). His character, Bob Wilton, is a man who wants to be more than he is. He decides that the way to become more of a man than the one-armed editor his wife left him for is to go to Iraq -- not as a soldier, of course, but as a reporter. He fails at that as well, until he meets George Clooney's Lyn Cassady. "Skip" Cassady appears to be the man's man Wilton aspires to. He's rugged, a trained soldier, and has a sweet mustache. It's not long, though, until Wilton realizes that Cassady is less than equipped for a secret mission behind enemy lines. After a car wreck leaves them easy prey for kidnappers, the pair begin their real journey -- one that plays alongside the story of the rise and fall of the New Earth Army.
Forget any expectations you may have for a movie about psychic soldiers. Chances are The Men Who Stare At Goats doesn't meet any of them. What should be the cool stuff -- paranormal training sequences, displays of psychic prowess, etc. -- is kept to a minimum. Heck, the actual goat-staring promised in the film's title only happens in one brief scene, and though it's important for Clooney's character, it marks the end of the most interesting part of the film. I don't want to see goats die, but I did want there to be more screentime for the weird sci-fi stuff. The movie says that it is based on actual events. It's no secret that the army has experimented with all kinds of techniques, and the mission of the actual First Earth Battalion was tied to Vietnam-era meditation and shamanistic movements. The true story (at least as based on Ronson's account) is fascinating. I wanted more of that, and less preaching about the evils of the Iraq War. By the time Wilton and his cohort subvert the evilness of the evil corporation that suddenly emerges as the villain of the story, I was done. Not because being against war and profiteering is bad, but because it is handled in a hamfisted way.
The biggest problem with The Men Who Stare At Goats is that screenwriter Peter Straughan tries to cram in too much. Too many characters, too many plots, too many years. Although Jon Ronson's original book deals with the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the film's focus on the present conflict is a mistake. The story of Django's New Earth Army misfits is far more interesting. The quick edits and jumps back and forth between the '80s and 2003 only serve to waste the talents of A-listers like Bridges and Spacey. Clooney gets the most screentime, and he deserves it. His performance is the perfect mix of twitchy burnout and macho man, with comedic timing as understated as his John Cleese mustache. Unfortunately, he falls victim to the film's final act -- a late twist leaving him without much to do or interest in doing it.
Despite the movie's disappointments, The Men Who Stare at Goats is often clever and funny. Before the dialogue gets weighed down by the film's political message, it sparkles, especially in the exchanges between McGregor and Clooney. The DVD transfer is beautiful, capturing the dynamic color, lighting, and editing. Detail is sharp in everything but the darkest parts of the darkest scenes. The 5.1 surround soundtrack balances the voices, effects, and music (a mix of classic rock and score composed by Rolfe Kent).
Bonus features include character bios, a short collection of deleted/extended scenes, and two featurettes: "Goats Declassified," which tells the story of the real First Earth Battalion; "Project 'Hollywood': A Classified Report From the Set," which is mostly interviews with the cast and crew. There are also two audio commentaries, one with director Grant Heslov, who talks a lot about production; and one by author Jon Ronson -- who talks about the real-life events that inspired the book and movie -- that is, in some ways, more interesting than the movie itself.
The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with a U.S. general running face first into his office wall in a failed attempt to pass through it -- a good metaphor for the movie that follows. Despite an abundance of filmmaking and acting talent, Goats sets off on a wondrous journey but gets lost along the way. Instead of telling one great story, it tells bits and pieces of several mediocre ones, finally collapsing under the weight of an anti-war message that is several years too late. That said, the interesting parts are interesting enough to recommend a rental for anyone who's prepared to watch this movie for what it is, and not for what the trailers and marketing make it out to be.
Guilty, but this movie gets an honorable discharge.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes