The Men Who Stare at Goats
Film review by: Witney Seibold
While first-time feature director Grant Heslov’s film “The Men Who Stare at Goats” begins with the captioned bit o’ Godardian trickery “More of this is true than you would believe,” the film is not as playful as it could have been. Not as much as, say, Charlie Kaufman could have made it, at any rate. That’s not to say that it’s not a quickly-paced, light-hearted amusing film. Plus it’s loaded with terrifically funny performances by some undeniably talented actors. The subject matter is also quite entertaining, as – wouldn’t you know it? – more of it is true than you would believe.
A small-town reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has just split with his pretty wife, and is determined to make something of his life. He goes to Iraq, hoping to cover the war, but instead, has a run-in with a mysteriously creepy ex-soldier named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Cassady ends up telling Wilton about a secret mission he’s on, and how it’s connected to his old days in the army.
Those old days? Cassady was the star pupil in a 1980s Cold War program that was training soldiers to hone and employ special psychic powers for use on the enemy. They find that they may be able to levitate, read minds from across the world, and, giving the film its namesake, stare at goats until they die. In flashback, we meet some of the men responsible for this program, most notably, the program’s superhippie founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, not far from his role in “The Big Lebowski”). We see the halcyon developments of various soldiers, as well as some bubbling resentments, mostly held by the bitter Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). Eventually, the program was dismantled.
This doesn’t mean, though, that Cassady has given up on his old skills, and shows off some dubious skills to Wilton as they get more and more lost in the desert.
This is an absurd setup, the direction is breezy, and much of the film is a hoot, inducing a few uncontrollable giggles here and there. Even if this weren’t partially a true story, it would still be fascinating to see such talented actors enacting such a wonderfully silly conceit.
But perhaps that breeziness also works to the film’s detriment. Since it moves so quickly, Heslov seems to have felt the need to include more story than is really necessary. The most amusing parts are all told in flashback, and the modern-day story seems almost like an afterthought. I would have much rather seen the same actors using a similar tone, telling a straightforward biography of the (true-to-life) U.S. Army’s need to include a psychic soldier force.
Plus, if you’re going to have a sad-sack reporter who has lost his wife, and is ready to believe a man who says he has psychic powers (and, what’s more, follow him into the Iraqi desert on a wild goose chase), then you ought to cast someone who can play “defeated” better than Ewan McGregor. I usually admire McGregor’s work, but here, he seems to be playing a dry role for laughs. Plus, he’s broken out again with his familiar American accent, which, in this role, serves as a hindrance; I would have rather seen him as a put-upon Scot (even though his real-life counterpart was American).
I think I will recommend this film, for Clooney, Spacey, and Bridges especially, and all of the old-time psychic training sequences. The films denouement, and entire modern-day storyline is, unfortunately, largely dispensable. As a whole, though, it’s amusing.