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The Men Who Stare at Goats

Director: Grant Heslov
Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey

(BBC Films; US DVD: 23 Mar 2010)

Review [6.Nov.2009]

More of this is true than you would believe.


These words appear shortly after a man runs full speed into a wall to open The Men Who Stare at Goats. As a playful tease of the absurd events soon to come (and just witnessed), it works quite nicely. It’s the first of many small chuckles to be had in the film and I don’t think it wants to serve as any more of a warning than that. Unfortunately, as the film continues to move forward and kooky characters and scenarios are introduced, I found myself thinking back to those words again and again.


I couldn’t dismiss them as a mere wisecrack. Saying “more of this is true” implies some of the story isn’t. Which parts, though, are stretching the truth to help the narrative? The line makes me want to believe the most absurd is true, but during the film I could not be sure. Did he really say that? Were they really stranded there? Did he actually trust him to do that? Even after watching the 94-minute film, it was somewhat hard to tell. After all, there was a lot of absurdity.


Before I get too distracted by my own curiosity, let me just say this film is playfully absorbing and very funny. Despite a scene involving suicide that comes out of nowhere, director Grant Heslov keeps things light and lively. This may sound like odd praise for a movie set in Iraq, but let me elaborate. 


The story begins with a recently divorced journalist fleeing the US to try to make something of himself covering the war in Iraq. Luckily, instead of going to the front line Bob (Ewan McGregor) runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a self-described ex-military man in town for a conference. His delicate ruse quickly falls away and Bob discovers he’s befriended a former psychic spy.

Yes. He’s a psychic spy currently on a mysterious mission to somewhere in the Iraq desert, and he wants Bob to come with him. During their slightly mundane adventure, Lyn recaps his training and previous missions to the ever-curious Bob. Here is where, well, “it” really hits the fan.


Lyn claims to be drafted by a private group in the army called the New Earth Army, an organization founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) to try to use positive energy and psychic abilities to make peace and not war. Lyn describes training exercises in dancing, yoga, and mental development. The men in the group grow out their hair and dress in vibrant clothes coupled with army fatigues. Yes, it’s the hippie division of the United States Army.


Bridges is simply groovy (translated: terrific) as the new age leader. Though he’s definitely channeling the Dude (again), his performance is more joyous and character more focused than his tremendous work with the Coen brothers. He gets all the best lines and, without giving too much away, his appearance in the film’s final third truly completes Django’s subtle arc. Lyn himself is no slouch, and he more than merely fills the minutes in Bridge’s absence. If you loved Clooney’s off the wall performance in O Brother Where Art Thou?, you’ll be completely entranced by him here.


It’s actually in the actors’ dedicated performances that the story can be taken at all seriously. Sure, the movie is only meant to be taken half-seriously, but in order to reach even that point requires this sort of professionalism from its players. After all, with terms like “Jedi warriors” and “sparkly eyes technique” combined with a backdrop as draped in reality as the Iraq war, someone needs to hold the two together. It’s amazing the whole thing works despite the aforementioned questions.


Yet the questions do stack up. I’m sure just reading this has brought to mind questions all your own. Unfortunately, due (I’m guessing) to the film’s less than stellar performance at the box office ($32 million domestically) next to nothing is explained in the disc’s special features. All films based on true stories are perfect subjects for special features on DVD or Blu-ray. So when their releases come absent of informative bonus material, it makes the whole package all the more frustrating.


The back cover of The Men Who Stare at Goats teases information by listing two featurettes and audio commentaries, but none of these provide all the answers. Lyn remains a mysterious character whose existence past the film’s end (and including it) is in permanent doubt. Even if certain aspects of the story are kept under wraps by government demand, someone needs to make sure the audience knows that, too. We do get a brief glimpse of the real life Bill Django and a few other persons with knowledge of the New Earth Army. They elaborate slightly on what’s real in the film and what’s not, but it’s still not enough in the end.


The Men Who Stare at Goats is a droll, engaging tale that’s factual origins almost derail the whole thing. They never get in the way of the movie as sometimes happens with tales too committed to their source material and, for that, it deserves praise. 


Still the fundamental flaw introduced by those few choice words persists. Perhaps others can kick back and enjoy the film without worrying about what really happened. I just wish such an accessible story could have made its facts just as easy to obtain.

Rating:

Extras rating:

Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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