© 2009 Ray Wong
One thing certain about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it's a difficult film to categorize. Is it comedy? Satire? Personal growth story? Buddy flick? Based-on-true-story drama? War film?
Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a reporter looking for a break, to prove himself to his ex-wife that he's not a loser. So he heads to the Middle East at the start of the Iraq War, but he is shut out from the major action. That's when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a special op military guy who is on a secret mission. Lyn also tells Bob that his "stealth" unit comprises of a group of "super" soldiers with super-human abilities such as telepathy and invisibility. Thinking Lyn is crazy, Bob goes along in hopes of getting the story he wants, plus Lyn is able to take him to Iraq, where the real actions are.
Once in Iraq, Bob and Lyn get to know one another and the journalist learns quite a lot of about the "New Earth" initiative and its founder, General Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). After Vietnam and a decade of soul searching, Django convinced the army to fund his operation, to create a battalion of soldiers--including General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang)--who could defeat the enemy through compassion and mind-control. Lyn was the most gifted soldier, and that made fellow super-soldier Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) jealous. Hooper sabotaged the operation and Django was ousted.
Back in the present, Lyn and Bob's adventure leads them through a series of mishaps including being kidnapped, shot at, and a near-death experience in the desert. Bob can't decide whether to believe Lyn anymore, or the man is indeed crazy. Then Lyn's special mission takes them to a secret location headed by no one but Hooper himself, and everything starts to make sense for Bob.
George Clooney (Up in the Air) seems drawn to oddball characters like Lyn Cassidy lately. Still dashing and in great shape, Clooney gives the character a good dimension while appearing rather off-center. His scenes during the "earlier years" are less convincing because, well, he doesn't look that much younger despite donning a wig and a mustache. Still, Clooney is able to not let his good looks and celebrity persona distract us from his character.
Ewan McGregor (Amelia) is slightly miscast as the American journalist. No, I don't have a problem with his American accent, per se. But he seems rather out of place next to the other American actors. He also carries most of the film, including the voiceovers, so I have a nagging feeling that he's bitten more than he could chew. Jeff Bridges (A Dog Year) is very good as the Zen master who dreams up the whole paranormal military thing. Kevin Spacey's (Moon) talent seems to be wasted in a two-dimensional villainous role. His portrayal is more of a caricature than a full-body development. But I blame the writer; obviously the Oscar winner is capable of doing much better. Stephen Lang (Avatar) and Robert Patrick (Lonely Street) also has stereotypical, shallow roles.
Written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) tackles Jon Ronson's nonfiction book, dissects and fictionalize it for the big screen. His disclaimer tells us many of the bizarre events are really true (but he won't tell us which). The result is kind of an absurdist take on war and military, but it's really not a war film, per se. In fact, I really can't tell you what the film is. It's part dark comedy, part drama, part satire, part coming of age, and part buddy flick. And that can be disorienting.
I do like Straughan's structure, though, interweaving backstories with what is currently going on. I also like the fact that the story is told from the reporter's perspective, thus creating an unreliable narrator. We never get to know what is true and what not. At the end, we probably don't really care either.
And that's the problem with the script -- there's not much to make us really care. It's interesting, for sure. It's bizarre and intriguing. But there are not high stakes. No personal interest. It's as if I was watching a bunch of strange people running around, but I didn't really care much about them.
Director Grant Heslov (Tony) is able to hold the production together despite the whiplash of plot and backstories. He avoids confusion by streamlining the plot and inserting the right amount of flashbacks at the right moment. The production is by and large slick but unremarkable.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is an enjoyable romp with a strange premise that may satisfy audiences with a taste for the quirky and bizarre. For those who're looking for something more mainstream, they may find themselves staring at the screen, befuddled.
Stars: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan (based on Jon Ronson's book)
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.9 out of 10