Welsh author and documentarian Jon Ronson’s 2004 book “The Men Who Stare at Goats” examined the U.S. Army’s investigation of the psychological and paranormal and their potential uses in modern warfare. Utilizing this fascinating study of top-secret military research as source material, director Grant Heslov delivers an entertaining picture, albeit one which slightly trivializes the underlying seriousness of its content.
Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is an Ann Arbor journalist who finds himself in Iraq chasing a story — any story — after his wife leaves him for his one-armed editor. Stumbling across a story bigger and more baffling than he could have imagined when he chances upon “super soldier” Lyn Cassady (a delightful George Clooney), Wilton is soon exposed to the world of psychic spies, the First Earth Battalion and Jedis who can apparently stop the heart of a goat by simply staring at it. Peter Straughan’s screenplay presents Cassady’s new-age training under Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) as farcical and ridiculous, whereas the real ridiculousness lies in the fact that that the majority of what occurs is based on fact. It all makes for fantastically funny viewing; and Clooney — as is becoming the norm — bosses it.
Heslov’s direction is evenly paced, flawlessly cutting back and forth between Cassady’s training and Cassady and Wilton’s directionless sojourn into Iraq. One minute Cassady and Wilton are busy escaping the clutches of Iraqi kidnappers or getting blown up by an I.E.D., the next we’re transported back to Fort Bragg to witness Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) hilariously channelling his spirit guides. While it’s all highly amusing fare, the core of the story is very light and it’s never exactly clear where the plot is going. There are some sly digs at American imperialism and its belligerent foreign policy (particularly highlighted by a shootout between rival U.S. security forces) and the immorality of using psychological torture in warfare, yet there’s an uncomfortable sense that the gravity of these issues are glossed over to an extent. In fact, it almost seems as if Heslov and Straughan are overtly aware of the fact that they’re supposed to be making a comedy and as a result are content to play it strictly for laughs.
Yet these niggles are minor enough so as not to detract from the enjoyment of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” with Straughan’s witty script providing the perfect vehicle for a particularly strong cast. McGregor provides a neat foil for Clooney, while Bridges is evidently enjoying himself as the eccentric Django. Props too for Spacey, terrific in what is essentially a cameo turn, and Stephen Lang who is excellent as General Hopgood. In effect, it’s a smart comedy that manages to turn Ronson’s intriguing book into a thoroughly enjoyable, well-observed indictment of the apparent absurdity of military psychological research without being overly political.
Originally featured at http://www.criticsnotebook.com on 17/10/09)