Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Grant Heslov

Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen Root

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 11/6/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I vaguely remember the news item about the "Barney & Friends" theme song being used to torture prisoners held in Iraq amidst a lot of other news about the second war in the country. Even recently, a bunch of musicians have banded together to find out if their music was used in interrogation at Guantanamo Bay. As it turns out, this melodic persecution wasn't even scratching the surface of the United States' use of shady psychological techniques at the time and the Army's history of toying with psychological and even psychic efforts.

Yes, you read that right. Psychic. As in foretelling the future, persuading another's mind, controlling the environment with the power of thought, and other kinds of mental manipulation—the kind we could associate with a character in Star Wars.

In fact, The Men Who Stare at Goats tells us the Army had an entire branch dedicated to psychic phenomena and attempted to use it for the betterment of the country. They even called them Jedi. The reason: The French heard a rumor that we weren't investigating psychic trends, and the Soviet Union believed the report that the United States wasn't doing so was false, leading the Soviets to start doing research into it, which, of course, meant that the US had to start its own program.

That's Cold War logic for you at its most quintessential.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, which at the opening tells us "More of this is true than you would believe," weaves two narratives about psychics in the Army. One is about an idealistic Vietnam veteran who spends a decade wandering through the New Age movement to discover newer, more peaceful ways of training soldiers and eventually gets the go-ahead from some top brass because of the Soviet mix-up stated above.

The vet is Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, probably the best possible choice to play the role). His ultimate goal is to create world peace, but to do that, he realizes, one has to change the way armies fight. So he creates the New Earth Army, whose objective is to make ordinary soldiers into "Warrior Monks," who think peacefully, use non-lethal force, and, of course, can eventually make themselves invisible. That last one is pretty tough.

The New Earth Army creates a psychic rock star in the form of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, in a goofy, hilarious performance), who prefers the term "remote viewer" to psychic, can move the clouds, find any man on the planet, and even once stopped the heart of a goat just by starting at it. He can do all of this if he's in the right state of mind ("Drinking helps," as does listening to classic rock—especially Boston—he boasts).

Things go wrong with the New Earth Army, as we learn in flashbacks throughout the primary, second narrative. It follows Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, a Scot playing an American inspired by a real-life Welshman), a journalist from Michigan whose wife leaves him for his one-armed editor and wants to prove himself to be a man. The best way to do that: Become an embedded journalist in Iraq, naturally.

That's harder than he thinks, and as he lounges around a Kuwait City hotel, telling his ex-wife all of his non-existent war stories, he meets Cassady, who says he's on his way into Iraq on a business trip. Wilton, who had coincidentally heard of Cassady while researching a story on a man who claimed to stop the heart of his pet hamster, convinces Cassady to let him tag along.

Along their way through Iraq, Cassady recalls the finer details of the New Age Army for Wilton, from its inception to its downfall at the hands of ambitious, jealous new recruit Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). The level of absurdity in truth is so high we of course believe it and are fascinated by each new ludicrous plane to which Peter Straughan's screenplay (based on Jon Ronson's book) brings us. Wilton, like so many in the film who encounter the Django's philosophies (including a major who at the start of the film tries to enter the neighboring office by running through the wall), also wants to learn the ways of the Jedi (The fifth wall joke of McGregor's confusion by the concept of a Jedi never grows old).

Cassady and Wilton are also kidnapped for ransom, visit the home of an Iraqi national (Waleed Zuaiter) whose life has been made nearly impossible by the war, and briefly encounter a private security company in the country. There is a definitive political edge to the film, one which Straughan and director Grant Heslov are only too eager to exploit.

The film's politics work best when they're left unspoken, like when the private security force engages a hostile presence that just happens to be another American private security company. Of course, everything has to be wrapped up in a tidy package, leading to a few zealous narrations from Wilton.

They are relatively far between, though, and Heslov maintains the film's farcical tone enough for them to be forgiven. The cast plays the whole thing straight, adding some real bite to the bizarre tale, and Bridges and Clooney's restrained madness is spot-on.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is all about the bastardization of ideals. From the implicit way the New Age movement popularized Eastern philosophy at the expense of the foundation to the way Django takes those ideas and finds a military application to the way Hooper eventually turns Django's training and turns it into something unrecognizable, there are bigger ramifications here than the war in Iraq.

The film might not completely understand it. Nonetheless, it's there, and it's hilarious and also sobering.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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