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Movie buzz misled me about last year's The Men Who Stare at Goats -- this comedy about bizarre hush-hush military research is both entertaining and funny. The defense budget being what it is, it's easy to imagine all kinds of flaky and unproductive projects green-lit by the Pentagon to inflate the numbers. 1 In screenwriter Peter Straughan's adaptation of the book by Jon Ronson, an unhinged Army officer charms a general into proposing a new line of super-secret scientific weapons research: Psi-ops. We're asked to believe that the Army funded a unit dedicated to developing and exploiting soldiers with super mental powers not that much different than the mentally enhanced characters in a Philip K. Dick novel, or even Marvel's X-Men. These wanna-be super soldiers even called themselves Jedi.
Apparently George Clooney was so tickled by this concept that he leaped to both produce and star. Surprise of surprises, director Grant Heslov's off-the-wall movie is, for those who can appreciate a twisted joke, a riot of fun -- almost all the way to the end.
The smiles begin in 2003, when unhappy reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviews an apparent loon that claims to possess advanced psychic abilities learned in some secret establishment. When his wife leaves him, Bob takes a journalistic leap of faith and travels to Kuwait, hoping to latch onto a big story connected to the Iraq war. He instead makes contact with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who identifies himself as a trained "Jedi warrior" with super abilities that aren't easily demonstrated. Lyn stares at clouds, and when they break up, claims that he has willed it to occur.
Bob is too confused to refute any of this nonsense, especially when Lyn rather irrationally concludes that the reporter possesses Jedi instincts as well and takes him along on a road trip into Iraq. Lyn then relates the amazing history of The New Earth Army, a secret weapons project initiated by guru visionary Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who came out of Vietnam with a vision of a "human potential" project to create a new kind of soldier who can read minds, observe events through remote vision, walk through walls and kill with just a stare. The special ops men hand picked for this task did a lot of meditation, dance therapy and (cough) mind-expanding substance ingestion. Hippie warriors all, they followed Bill's benign lead -- if Love is the truth, than it cannot be defeated. Lyn subscribed to Django's "gentle warrior" ethic but his bitter rival Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) had other ideas, and 'turned to the dark side'. For instance, Larry tested a risky idea by tricking a recruit into a murderous delirium.
The New Earth Army continued to receive funding, especially when Lyn apparently developed a psychic ability to find lost and kidnapped people -- some of the time. But other fiascos and Larry's backbiting got the project shut down.
The key scene in all of this insanity occurs when one general reports to another that, after hearing that American military researchers were attempting mental communication with a submarine under the North Pole, the Russians opened their own expensive psychic research unit. Despite the fact that the submarine story is a complete falsehood, the American generals immediately green-lit Django's New Earth Army, to counter the Russians. That seems totally credible.
Lost in the middle of Iraq, Lyn and Bob are captured by bandits. Private security mercenaries (led by Robert Patrick) rescue the two oddball heroes, and then engage in a bloody shootout with another, rival security company! The pair eventually makes contact with a new version of their old outfit -- a private operation run by none other than the cynical Larry Hooper. Will Lyn join up? Hooper already has the alcoholic, burnt-out Bill Django on his payroll.
Structure is everything in The Men Who Stare at Goats. Most of the unbelievable stuff we're expected to (dis?) believe occurs in flashbacks to the ethereal 80s, and is thus tainted by a thick cloud of drugs 'n' dope. The entertaining Lyn Cassady frequently comes off as someone who wouldn't pass a psychological exam. Are the flashbacks to Larry Hooper bending spoons and Lyn Cassady projecting himself to other places real, or idle delusions made up to impress Bob?
Whatever they are, it's all funny. The goofy satire of Army madness is choice stuff. Stephen Lang is perfect as an inspired General convinced that he can run through a solid wall if he concentrates hard enough. The humor gets ghoulish (but never gory) when explaining the title: Lynn is given the assignment to stare at a goat so intently, that it dies. This feat is preceded by a marvelous little vignette explaining why goats were chosen as test victims for whatever lethal idea pops into a weapons designer's head. A goat staked out in an atom test site lifts its uncomprehending snout toward the sky ...
The movie isn't virulently anti-army, but producer Clooney must have liked the film's image of the Iraq War as a bonanza for militaristic moneymaking, especially with its pointed jab at what the news insists on calling "private security forces". Mahmud Daash plays an Iraqi who befriends our oddball partners for a short while, but nowhere do civilians really figure into the equations, except as targets. Of course, Larry Hooper's classified secret ops is pulling in millions to come up with god-awful things to do to aid the fighting, some of which are so heinous Hooper doesn't even want them mentioned.
The Men Who Stare at Goats may be the only movie with drug-related humor I've really enjoyed... the exotic substances undercut the credibility of all we see, and perhaps stand in for the enormous self delusion required to go to war. The conflict isn't an enigma within an enigma, but a scam within a scam. All four major players shine, although Kevin Spacey is given the less desirable "Milo Minderbinder" role to play and doesn't have the fun the others do. George Clooney goes through much of the picture practically cross-eyed, he's so intent on focusing his dubious psionic powers. Jeff Bridges is fall-down hilarious. He pulls off the flower-child warrior bit better than anybody else could possibly do it -- no matter what hare-brained ethereal cereal nonsense is going on, Bill Django's sense of enlightenment glows from within.
Ewan McGregor makes a fine straight man, likening his quest into Iraq with that of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. His and Clooney's desert wandering sometimes seems like a new version of Ishtar. The show starts with Bob Wilton losing the girl of his dreams, and the absence of women from the rest of the story makes The Men Who Stare at Goats seem like a parable of what crazy boys will get up to when girls aren't there to pull them down to Earth. Does that include war? Bob Wilton listens with rapt attention as Lyn tells him how the Army goats are de-voiced before testing. While we're thinking along the lines of whether or not a Goat unable to bleat is more susceptible to a heart attack, Bob is transported into journalistic nirvana: "Gee ... The silence of the goats!"
With a movie like this we wait and watch to see just how the filmmakers will possibly reach an acceptable finish, and the fact is that The Men Who Stare at Goats ends with a whimper, not a bleat. The excuse to make Larry Hooper's sick outfit go to pieces isn't very imaginative, even if it has some good jokes. I can barely remember the ending just a day after watching the movie, but it doesn't diminish my delight at the rest of the show. Nope, we never find out if the Psi-ops claims were ever genuine, even if the final image gives us a wish-fulfillment rush à la 4D Man. The Men Who Stare at Goats is enthusiastically recommended -- if you're ready for something totally goofball.
Anchor Bay & Overture's Blu-ray of The Men Who Stare at Goats has a great look to match its fast pace and guaranteed laughs. Grant Heslov's direction is smart and precise, and Robert Elswit's cinematography always attractive. He adds subtle lighting effects to hype the delirium in Jeff Bridges flower-power "gentle warrior" academy.
The disc has two commentaries. The director gives us the direct run-down, letting us in on behind the scenes facts. The "Kuwait" shown in the movie is really Puerto Rico, for instance. Original author Jon Ronson reports that the secret program was real and that claims made by the ex-members came from interviews he conducted. He learned about some kind of similar-sounding program going on in 2003 but wasn't allowed to investigate -- screenwriter Peter Straughan added the entire Iraq mission framework. According to Ronson, a general did spend years trying in vain to walk through a wall, never understanding why his concentrated efforts didn't succeed! This same general introduced what became the Army's big recruiting slogan: "Be All You Can Be."
The Blu-ray release of The Men Who Stare at Goats includes a separate disc for downloading a Digital copy of the feature. The DVD and Blu-ray discs come with the same well-produced extras. A making-of featurette lets the actors express their amusement at being able to play such wild characters. A longer piece called Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion makes us feel rather uneasy. We meet the real men behind the true-life First Earth Battallion, who are now retired gurus and true believers. They offer the exact same claims presented in the movie, and suggest them in the same way -- talking about making themselves invisible, then saying that the practice was downgraded into making one's self difficult to see, and then proclaiming proudly that they tried to make themselves invisible, which is supposed to be just as good. At least two ex-officers hold to the claim of successful mental transportation -- "remote viewing" -- as if they do it every day. Frankly, this kind of flimflammery makes one a little angry, and dulls the movie experience. Is this a fun comedy about wackos, or a joke about how the public is too stupid to know miracles when they see them? Today's culture already suffers the weight of too much screaming BS in regard to preposterous beliefs being accepted as gospel. This chapter could be re-titled "Apocryphal Now". 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A coworker once told me of his Army experience in Germany in the early 1970s. He was ordered to purposely bury millions of dollars of perfectly good construction equipment, presumably to justify the army's buying a new batch. Was he telling the truth or just blowing smoke? Dunno.
2. The claimants of super powers in this story remind me of the frauds and self-deluded fools indulged by Thelma Moss's paranormal research unit at UCLA in the early 1970s. I write about the experiences of a good friend from UCLA, a former roommate who filmed various "paranormal events" for Ms. Moss, in a footnote to my review for the irresponsible horror film The Entity.
3. Reader Ed Sullivan gives us a nice chaser for this review: a couple of years back author Jon Ronson lent his expertise to a BBC Special Docu also called The Men Who Stare at Goats. It's all factual, as opposed to the Looney Tunes version presented in the hilarious Jeff Bridges / George Clooney movie. The alternate, rather anti-American title, is Crazy Rulers of the World.The docu does what the film was not allowed to do, whichi is point to a possible rationale behind these wild tales ... and it's not pretty ... think Abu Ghraib.
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