“More of this is true than you would believe.”
You know, it’s really nice to see a movie use a phrase other than “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” Those descriptions have all but lost their meaning ages ago because even if what we’re seeing actually did happen, it has all been watered down into a formulaic feel good movie that we have seen over and over again to where we want to gag. Even worse, we keep getting suckered into seeing those same movies even when we should know better. Either that, or there’s nothing better to watch (or your latest rental fro Netflix hasn’t arrived yet). But this year has been great in subverting those worthless phrases with movies like “The Informant.” That one made clear that it was based on actual events but that certain parts had been fictionalized, and it ended by saying:
Now we have “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” one of the many George Clooney movies that we will be seeing this holiday season. It opens with the sentence at the top of this review. The story behind this one is so bizarre to where it’s almost impossible to believe that any of what we’re seeing could ever have happened. But it appears that a good portion of these happenings did take place, and it makes for what is truly one of the more unique war movies I have seen in awhile. The film is based on a (you’ve heard it) non-fiction book by Jon Ronson which looked at how US military forces used psychic powers against their enemies. They look at New Age concepts as well as activities of the paranormal to achieve these goals, and of how they worked to use these methods to their advantage (assuming of course that this is all true). The movie takes place in the backdrop if the Iraq war, but not to worry, this movie is not trying to shove any politics down your throat (not consciously anyway).
Jon himself serves as the inspiration for the character of Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Bob’s wife has just left him for his editor, and of course he is depressed and decides that he needs to do something more important with his life (in hopes he can get her back). As a result, he travels to Kuwait to do first hand reporting of the war in Iraq, with hopes of finding someone who can get him across the border. Bob ends up having a chance meeting with a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady who was in the military, but who now runs a dance studio. Lyn ends up revealing to Bob that he was part of an American unit that was trained to be psychic spies, or as he eventually calls them, “Jedi warriors.” From there, Bob will learn all about this special unit that you’d think could only have existed in a science fiction novel.
I love the irony of all the talk about “Jedi warriors” here, especially since Ewan McGregor played one in the “Star Wars” prequels.
Anyway, “The Men Who Stare At Goats” is really a cross between a war movie and a road movie as Lyn and Bob traverse the sandy dunes of the Middle East to where not everything is as it appears. It’s also a mix of comedy and drama the same way “Three Kings,” another movie which starred George Clooney, was. While the tone of the movie is largely uneven, especially towards the end, this was definitely an inspired film that kept me entertained throughout, and which was also quite unpredictable for the most part.
Ewan McGregor is playing the main character here, but let’s face it, George Clooney steals the show right out from under his feet. His performance as Lyn Cassady is truly one of his most surprising in his creation of it. Despite how ridiculous he may seem Clooney plays him straight and never appears to be self-conscious. Seeing him trying to burst clouds with his mind, and trying to reach into his enemy’s mind by staring right at them has Clooney going through emotions ranging from serious to funny and to downright tragic. Having gone from playing roles in more dramatic movies like “Syriana” to “Michael Clayton” among others, George Clooney once again shows that he is also really good at comedy and never has to strive too hard for a laugh.
I don’t want to take away from Ewan McGregor though, who does manage to pull off a convincing American accent. In many ways, his role is more of a reactionary one as he is subjected to conditions he could never have fully prepared for. As Bob Wilton, he is bewildered at what Lyn is telling him, and yet he still wants to journey further and further into this guy’s head. I also have to give Ewan a lot of credit because he could have made it look like he was consciously aware of all those “Star Wars” references, but he never did. Had he, it would have taken us out of this film completely. May the force be with him!
But one of the great delights of “The Men Who Stare At Goats” is watching Jeff Bridges channel that inner-dudeness that made him so popular after “The Big Lebowski.” Jeff plays Bill Django, a military leader who after being wounded in Vietnam has a New Age vision of a kind of combat he wants to develop. This leads him to study concepts which he incorporates into a special unit called the New Earth Army. Bill becomes a teacher of using non-lethal techniques to gain advantage over the enemy, and his training techniques are unorthodox to say the least. Bridges plays the character broadly, but not too broadly. As funny as the character is, Bridges infuses Django with a disappointment that threatens to render him useless to those around him, and with a deep sense of fear and tragedy as his techniques are misused or taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from them. Once again, Jeff Bridges remains one of the most underrated actors ever.
Having been in London doing tons of theater, it seemed like it would require a herculean effort to bring Kevin Spacey back to the big screen. Granted, he has been in a few films recently, but none that has drawn the attention of the masses like he did in “The Usual Suspects” or “American Beauty.” So seeing Spacey here is a kick as he plays the real antagonist of the film, Larry Hooper. Larry is basically the Darth Vader to Bridge’s Obi Wan Kenobi and Clooney’s Luke Skywalker as he takes the non-lethal methods of the New Earth Army and ends up using them for more lethal purposes. Hooper ends up doing this not so much out of greed as he does resentment since Django does not consider him in the same light as he does Lyn. His actions bring about the downfall of the New Earth Army, and he turns all these abilities they developed into something far more insidious. From there, you will see why the movie and the book it is based on has the title it does.
Kevin has great fun as he channels the inner smugness that has enveloped his character over time, and which some say he has become well known for off screen as well as on (I don’t hang out with him, so I can’t say for sure). While his role is a little more serious than the others, he still has great moments of comedy that remind us of what a talented actor he is (as if that could ever have been in doubt). Spacey does a great work of balancing out the serious and comedic aspects of his character without tilting too much in one direction.
The movie was directed by Grant Heslov, George Clooney’s business partner on many films including the brilliant “Good Night and Good Luck” which he co-wrote. Heslov has his work cut out for him here as he must find a balance between the humorous and dramatic aspects of the story. Granted, he doesn’t always succeed but he creates a most unusual war movie, and it is all the more entertaining because of that. Even more telling is the way he shows off the Iraqi people in certain scenes. They are not all portrayed as gun toting terrorists, and he captures the look of their helplessness in having to deal with a military occupation they did not ask for.
Like I said, there’s no serious politicizing of the Iraq war or any other war in this movie, so don’t feel like you are walking into some sort of trap. Like “The Hurt Locker,” it merely focuses on what those Americans in Iraq are doing in the midst of all this chaos, albeit this one probes it in a slightly more comical way. “The Men Who Stare At Goats” seems almost far too bizarre to be real, but a part of you just might want it to be (to a certain extent anyway). One thing’s for sure, you will never look at “Barney and Friends” in the same way ever again, assuming you ever watched it in the first place (c’mon! Don’t deny it!).
***½ out of ****