'The Men Who Stare at Goats' was released in 2009 and was directed by Grant Heslov. For those of you unaware of the premise for this movie, it's based on the novel of the same name by Jon Ronson (he also had a hand in penning the screenplay for this adaption). The focus of the novel (and the movie) is the reputed top secret branch of the US Army which specialised in pscy-warfare and the application of paranormal phenomena in combat situations. I have not had the pleasure of reading the book but, like the movie, it outlines the history of this unusual (and invisible) branch of the US Army, from its original conception in the seventies, right up to its involvement in the recent war in the Middle East (where the Barney theme tune was used to torture enemy soldiers). The movie charts a similar course, albeit in a more condensed manner. Some of you may have seen the Channel 4 programme, 'Crazy Rulers of the World', in which the techniques employed by the Jedi-like super soldiers characterised in this movie is the focus of attention. Heslov, a name you may recognise from his previous acting roles, is relatively inexperienced from a directorial viewpoint but he has none the less managed to assemble an incredible wealth of acting talent for his first big budget production.
Heading up the cast is Ewan McGregor ('I Love you Phillip Morris'), who plays roving reporter Bob Wilton. He is backed up in his lead role by the silver fox himself, George Clooney ('Welcome to Collinwood'). Acting heavyweights Jeff Bridges ('Crazy Heart'), who plays Bill Django, and Kevin Spacey ('The Usual Suspects'), who plays Larry Hooper, also join the fray and provide key support to the main payers. Flavour of the month Stephen Lang ('Avatar') also crops up playing Dean Hopgood, with Mr. T(1000!), Robert Patrick, making a cameo appearance as Todd Nixon. Obviously the strength of the screenplay was a major factor in pulling together this powerhouse of a cast.
Bob is a reporter whose life, following the death of a work colleague, begins to crumble horribly. In an effort to reinvent himself and leave all his woes behind, he embarks on a mission to reinvent himself in Iraq (while covering the controversy surrounding construction contracts). Prior to his departure, he interviewed an ex-Army operative, who claimed to be able to kill a hamster simply by starting at it. Initially Bob disregarded this story as lunacy but in Iraq he happens across a certain Lynn Cassidy, who was reportedly one of the most deadly operatives of the New Earth Army (the division which housed all the psychic super-soldiers). Realising that he may have stumbled upon the story of the century, Bob begins to unravel the mysteries of the New Earth Army with gusto, following Lynn into the depths of the war zone to document his amazing tale.
With powers that include remote viewing (which allows the Jedi super-soldier to travel anywhere and see everything), sparkle eyes technique (to dazzle the enemy), invisibility (or rather not being noticed) and most impressively, the ability to kill simply by staring, we flip to flashback mode to discover the fantastical origins of the New Earth Army. Enter one Bill Django, a straight laced general. Following an injury in Vietnam, as a result of his trainee platoon inherently not wanting to kill enemy soldiers (and a subsequent prophetic vision), Bill begins to research how man's instincts not to kill could be adapted as an offensive weapon. Bill pens the New Earth Army Manual, which basically is a hippy driven manuscript that attempts to harness the power of the universe to perform amazing feats. With this narrative bringing us up to speed on the amazing exploits of Lynn's past life, he winds up getting himself (and Bob) kidnapped by some Iraqi vigilantes, who wish to hold them to ransom. Backed into a life and death situation, will Lynn be able to unleash some of legendary superpowers to save the day? And what even happened to Bill Django......
I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The manner in which Heslov presents the material is very clever indeed. The two main storylines are told in a very different manner. The flashback portions, during which we witness the rise of the New Earth Army, are told with passion and unshakable belief. All of the outlandish special powers are accompanied by on screen depictions, which validate that they occurred. Meanwhile, as we follow Lynn and Bob's modern day adventure, the special powers are toned down, with no real fantastical events to verify Lynn's reported special powers. The incredible physic feats which are performed are presented in a distinctly tongue in cheek manner, with many possible explanations for Lynn and Bob's “escapes”, other than Lynn's Jedi abilities. Whilst the flashback “Origins of the New Earth Army” subplot provides interesting background and builds the tension regarding Lynn's capabilities, the main storyline hurtles along and quickly places the two main characters in dangerous situations (which get progressively worse). Both storylines are dosed heavily with comedic elements, with the latter providing a healthy injection of pace and excitement to the proceedings. Heslov manages to meld the two to perfection, dropping the flashback narrative to focus on the main plot as we hit the one hour mark. Going against the trend of modern movies, which tend to favour epic run times that belie their content (I blame 'Lord of the Rings' personally!), this movie is packed to the brim with worthwhile progression and back-story, with zero filler to be seen at any point (in this reviewers humble opinion!).
The cast as a collective are simply sublime. McGregor fares well as the straight man and narrator, using his comedic abilities to enhance Clooney's antics (by basically being pretty wooden), while also preventing the entire plot from wandering into the realm of complete fantasy (with some very sensible questions). Clooney, as usual, is near perfection. His facial expressions are absolutely hilarious and some of the physical gags that he performs really brought forth some belly laughs (not to mention his more than adequate dancing!). The mighty Jeff Bridges is simply flawless. In a role that mirrors his performance in 'The Big Lebowski' (which is by far and away my favourite Bridges performance), he plays a similar stoner type, albeit to a much lesser extent. His presence is immense, his comedy timing perfect, and he really does not put a foot wrong here at any point. That being said, I would love to see a sequel where the exploits of Lynn and Bill are explored in more detail. Spacey is strong, playing the evil Jedi who cannot seem to match up to the other super soldiers in the special powers department. When he's playing the straight man he's as impeccable as ever but some of his comedic efforts (at the close of the movie) didn't gel well with me for some reason. Aside from that, Lang provides some slapstick joviality and Patrick provides a sarcastic jab at the greed of Americans. But it's largely up to the aforementioned stars to provide the main substance of the movie and they do a fantastic job. One of the most amazing facets of the movie is the miraculous manner in which the flashback portions contain much younger looking versions of Clooney and Bridges. Both are more energised (in comparison to their present day counterparts) and really pull off this facet of the presentation with vigour and style.
This is just one of those movies that seems to have the perfect combination of cast and plot. The nature of the source material would leave continuity and reality movie fans a little distraught, as some of the content is flower-power-tastic. However, suspend disbelief, become one with the universe and enjoy the tremendous performances, and you will be in for a treat. Ruminate on the facts and ideas bandied about and there's some definite food for thought here. I'm sure that during the seventies (and even in present day), there was a desperate scramble to develop new (and far-out) combat techniques to devastate the enemy - look at the experiments into the Telsa machine and other mind controlling experiments that occurred during WWII as a prime example (not to mention Area 51). For a novice director, Heslov has done an admirable job and must be commended for his efforts. My only gripe with this movie is the ending is a little lame and slightly lazy. I was enjoying the movie whole heartedly but admittedly was somewhat let down by the conclusion. I can't quite place my finger on why this is but it's almost as though it was slapped on hastily due to time/budget constraints or some other such reason. That being said, the rest of the movie is tremendously enjoyable and more than makes up for the lacklustre conclusion. Every once in awhile a gem of a movie arrives, which contains a completely novel plot, wonderful performances and solid direction; this is one such movie and such gets a well deserved eight. Highly recommended for all you Jedi's out there but this one might not be everyone's cup of tea, especially if you can't liberate your mind maaannnnnn!
“More of this is true than you believe”
Our Review Ethos