Anchor Bay // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 22nd, 2010
"More of this is true than you would believe."
Heaven knows the U.S. government has gotten up to some scary tricks over the years, and it doesn't take a tinfoil wearing conspiracy nut to realize that after MK-ULTRA (the government's experiments with LSD) and COINTELPRO (the government's attempts to infiltrate "subversive" groups to destroy them from the inside), there's very little the government wouldn't be willing to try. Enter The Men Who Stare At Goats, a book that purports to expose an Army project called the First Earth Battalion that used New Age concepts to supplement the usual military tactics. By harnessing psychic and paranormal powers (like staring at goats until they die), this loose group hopes to modernize the military and move its focus from war and death to peace and love. The film version of The Men Who Stare at Goats adapts the book by letting us follow the path of a reporter investigating this group. The absurdity of the title is outmatched only by the absurdity of the film's story as we follow our hero down the rabbit hole into a world of yoga, cloud-busting, and "remote viewing." It won't be a comedy to everyone's taste, but if you watch The Men Who Stare at Goats (Blu-ray), you'll see it has a big heart and a careful eye for the off-kilter.
Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting) has just been left by his wife. To prove that he's still a man, he decides to go to Iraq as a reporter. While having trouble getting across the border, he meets up with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, Ocean's Eleven), a former member of the First Earth Battalion, a group of soldiers who worked to develop their psychic powers. Seeing a story (and a way into Iraq), Bob decides to travel with Lyn. As the two traipse through the desert encountering all manner of different characters, we get the history of the First Earth Battalion and learn that the project might not be as decommissioned as we think.
Before seeing The Men Who Stare At Goats, I had briefly encountered the book and knew that it purported to be a factual account of some of the crazier goings-on in the U.S. military. I was expecting something along the lines of The Informant!, an absurd character study that would lightly fictionalize a journalistic account of the military and its special projects. To a certain extent, the comparison is an apt one. Both The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Informant! traffic in a truth-derived absurdity, painting portraits of men at the edge of consensual reality. Where the films diverge, however, is in presentation. The Informant! has a giddy feel and Soderbergh is not afraid of amping up the absurdity with a crazy color scheme and slightly over-the-top performances. The Men Who Stare at Goats takes the opposite approach. The film chronology is roughly linear, and the film, while not journalistic, feels more realistic than the material would suggest. The very straight performances only make the situations more amusing.
The performances, in fact, are the film's heart. Ewan McGregor does an excellent job as the rube we follow into the world of the New Age military. He's dopey and sympathetic and spends most of the film looking quizzical. George Clooney gets to mug for the camera as the unbalanced Lyn and he rides the line perfectly between completely serious and utterly insane. If he hadn't won for Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges would have deserved an Oscar for this film. His hippie-military persona is obviously influenced by The Big Lebowski, but for this role, he projects even more of a non-threatening vibe as the head of the First Earth Battalion. Finally, Kevin Spacey gets to smarm it up as the villain of the film, Hooper.
As a Blu-ray release, the The Men Who Stare at Goats, is excellent. The 2.35:1 widescreen presentation is bright and clear, free of any significant problems with the transfer. The audio keeps the dialogue central which works just fine for this flick.
The film's extras offer peaks at both the story behind the film and the film's production. First up is a featurette, "Goats Declassified," which includes interviews with many of the men who were responsible for First Earth principles and inspired characters in the film. The second featurette, "Project Hollywood" takes a behind-the-scenes approach to the film, and the first disc also offers up some deleted scenes. The best part for me, however, were the two audio commentaries. The first is by director Grant Heslov, where he discusses how he came to the film and his approach to the material. The second is by writer Jon Ronson, where he discusses his book and what parts of the film are more or less accurate. Taken together, these commentaries give a solid picture of the book's factual accuracy, themes, and production. The second disc of this release is a digital copy for portable media players.
Considering the source of the film is a journalistic account of military goings-on, it's no surprise that a structure had to be imposed to give the film a narrative arc. Whether you as an audience member accept that structure will largely determine your enjoyment of the film. The third act is where things start to get a little off as the script struggles for an ending. Although I found the conclusion a compelling and thoughtful way to end the film, many will find its blatant attempts at pathos to be trite and ill-conceived. Fans of the source text might also find the film strays a bit too far from the book.
The Men Who Stare at Goats doesn't do much to illuminate the stranger aspects of the U.S. military, but it does give us an amusingly absurd portrait of true believers in psychic warfare. The story, and its fact or fiction, is really immaterial in the face of the brilliant performances by the cast. This is also a solid Blu-ray release that gives enough background on the film and its source to please fans.
It doesn't take remote viewing to see that The Men Who Stare at Goats is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Character Bios
* Digital Copy