Jon Ronson's 2004 book, "The Men Who Stare at Goats," was a nonfiction look at the U.S. Military's effort to harness psychological manipulation as a new form of warfare. Again, nonfiction. The film version of the wily tale has rightfully selected an accelerated route of absurdity to depict the inherent weirdness, permitting the viewer a chance to enjoy the oddity without the crippling burden of a real-world hangover. Blithe and teeming with actors having the time of their lives, "Goats" is a hilarious, freewheeling descent into the abyssal madness of the military machine.
A Midwestern journalist with heavy domestic troubles, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) heads over to Iraq to cover the war, looking to challenge himself and prove his worth to his cheating wife. Needing a specialist to help cross the border, Bob meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former diamond soldier of the New Earth Army (NEA), a military unit dedicated to nurturing psychic powers, under the command of new age enthusiast, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Learning more about these self-proclaimed "Jedis," Bob is sucked into Lyn's history, learning about wondrous mental feats of strength and the bitterness of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a rival who desired his own position of leadership. Traveling into the heart of the war, Bob and Lyn bond as they dodge trouble, trusting in the ridiculous powers of the mind to help them stave off certain doom.
"Goats" is a tightrope act without a safety net, requiring a sense of adventure from the viewer as screenwriter Peter Straughan and director Grant Heslov depict the waves of tomfoolery while satirizing rigid military behaviors and ferocious ambition. "Goats" is a comedy and a zany one at that, highlighting the birth of the psychic warrior, trained by Django to be sensitive souls willing to express themselves through dance, deviating from the military norm -- a generation of flower children for the 1980s, with Lyn the star pupil. Finding his true calling in life as a member of the NEA, Lyn sharpens his untested mental skill while discovering himself in ways never allowed in stricter settings of instruction.
Through Heslov, the concept of psychic warfare is left in a gray area of belief, using Bob as the surrogate who initially doubts Lyn's explanations, but eventually fully immerses himself in the NEA world, becoming a true believer the more Lyn divulges state secrets in the middle of the Iraq desert. Summoning the miracle of a classic rock soundtrack and trusting the power of careful, considerate framing, Heslov sells the insanity with amazing results, allowing the movie to chase pure goofball splendor, giving in to the slapstick and exaggerated reactions, creating a festive atmosphere where every actor contributes superbly to the eccentricity. Dealing with psychedelic drugs, mind games with goats, and wild stories of unorthodox training, Heslov shows an incredible flair for finger-paint comedy, allowing the picture to gracefully soak up nonsense, sharply performed by the outstanding cast.
Moving into darker, treacherous corners for the last act, endeavoring to tie something madcap into sobering Iraq War history, Heslov extends the conclusion past its expiration date. He stops the party, and the energy is noticeably lacking from the final reel, which feels uncharacteristically severe. Thank heavens the rest of the picture stuck with the silly.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) reveals a great swell of detail from the very first scene, showing off Stephen Lang's sweaty, concentrated face with ideal clarity. Facial response and location nuances are easily surveyed, with strong skin tones -- intense, but rarely overwhelming. Colors feel unnaturally boosted at times, with big hues during early scenes set in America. When the action moves to the Middle East, the BD handles the blown-out locations superbly, keeping the actors available to the viewer while communicated the sweltering yellows of the cinematography.
The 5.1 PCM track is healthy and active, working through the levels of comedy with nice fidelity and a snappy lower end, rumbling along with comfortable LFE response for action footage and more brazen acts of slapstick. Dialogue exchanges are crisp and varied, with nothing lost in the haze of sound effects and big soundtrack selections, most adding to the depth of the mix. Directionality is useful and Middle East atmosphere is excellent, bringing the listener into the center of the locations. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included
Two feature-length audio commentaries are included on the BD, the first with director Grant Heslov, who cautiously walks through the picture, talking up the challenges of his directorial debut, which granted him a range of A-list actors and a series of scorching locations. Of primary importance is a discussion of the Jedi dialogue and how McGregor reacted to all the "Star Wars" references. It's nice to have some clarification on the subject.
The second track features author Jon Ronson (a dryly humorous fellow), who's here to discuss the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of the story, pointing out real-world connections to the material and the characters. For fans of the film, this is a highly unusual track offering a peculiar perspective on the finer elements of the tale.
"Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion" (12:29) talks to author Jon Ronson and the actual men behind the goat staring, who talk up their military experiences and reaction to the book. Again, the simple fact that much of the story is rooted in reality is delightfully outrageous.
"Project 'Hollywood': A Classified Report from the Set" (7:34) is a more promotional piece, interviewing cast (sans Clooney) and crew on the origins of the screenplay and the execution of the nutty ideas contained in the writing.
"Character Bios" (4:46) are commercials spotlighting the various personalities of the film.
"Deleted Scenes" (4:14) offer more of Django's therapeutic journey, further rage from Hooper, "Conan the Barbarian" inspiration, and Wilton's attempt at a psychic miracle (with unfinished special effects).
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
Heslov has shaped "The Men Who Stare at Goats" into a lively romp; an indescribable satiric lunge that's big on laughs and puzzlement, making it a constantly engaging sit despite some potentially off-putting material.