The Men Who Stare At Goats
True Lies: 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' succeeds at silliness but fails at journalism.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
“More of this story is true than you would believe,” reads the caption at the beginning of The Men Who Stare at Goats, but let’s be real: No one involved in this movie goes on a limb to give it the sting of veracity. If a movie can be said to have an attitude, this one would involve a shake of the head, accompanied by a hearty, “Ain’t this some crazy shit?”
Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan are adapting a nonfiction book by journalist Jon Ronson, it’s true, and in that book Ronson explores several stranger-than-fiction characters and government operations. For the screen, Ronson has been turned into Michigan reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who finds himself emotionally distraught after his wife leaves him in 2003 for his editor, who happens to have a prosthetic arm. You’d be forgiven if you wondered whether this is the part of the story that isn’t true. And then wondering how you’re supposed to know the difference.
Determined to throw himself into his work, Wilton heads to the Middle East to find a story in the Iraq War. What he finds instead is a connection to a previous story he reported, a bizarre-sounding tale told by a man about a U.S. military operation to develop “Jedi warriors” – soldiers with psychic abilities. Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) was one of those would-be warriors decades earlier; now he’s in Iraq on a secret mission, and ready to act as Wilton’s guide into the strange meeting between the Army and the paranormal.
For the next hour, the narrative swings back and forth between Wilton and Cassady’s Middle East misadventures and the history of the First Earth Battalion, initiated by idealistic Vietnam veteran Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Heslov approaches both parts of his story with the same surreal, goofy sensibility, and the result is comedy that’s often as entertaining as it is bizarre. Bridges revels once again in a loosey-goosey performing energy reminiscent of The Big Lebowski’s The Dude, while Clooney conveys the deadly earnestness of a true believer. At just 93 minutes, Goats is light on its feet and never threatens to overstay its welcome.
But that same lightness also becomes a hindrance to The Men Who Stare at Goats really being able to go for the satirical jugular vein. As Ronson’s true story turns, Django’s blissed-out notion of warriors for peace is appropriated by a military only able to focus on applications for inflicting pain, like the technique suggested by the film’s title, in which psychics were able to kill animals just by looking at them. Ronson draws a direct connection between 1980s psychic research and later applications of psychological warfare on prisoners of war and other enemies, which is a fairly tragic perversion of the First Earth Battallion’s original New Agey intent, if perhaps inevitable in hindsight. But the film’s tone is too frivolous to permit a serious contemplation of militaristic tunnel vision. Heslov and Straughan take a few token swipes at greedy civilian contractors, but in so doing they miss the big target: an armed forces apparatus that sees every problem as a nail to be hammered down.
It’s easy to feel the pain of a screenwriter tasked with translating a true story into a three-act conventional narrative, every rough edge demanding a good sanding down. What drives the story forward, after all, if not this fictional journalist and his fictional quest? But there’s still a difference between manufacturing a structure and taming the cynical frustration at the core of Ronson’s book. The Men Who Stare at Goats becomes a movie that’s unwilling to do much more than grin and wink at you, nowhere better exemplified than in giving McGregor – who once played a young Obi-wan Kenobi – a line like, “What’s a Jedi warrior?”
It’s a line to chuckle at knowingly, a line with an arch self-awareness. It’s the kind of line that exemplifies a movie that, while honest about only telling a partly true story, doesn’t seem particularly interested in making sure the audience understands which part.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS (2 ½) • Directed by Grant Heslov • Starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges • Rated R • 93 min • At Del Monte Cinemas, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas.