Taken from Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same title, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a rare comedy film about war.
The story is as follows: a broken-hearted journalist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) goes to Iraq in search of a story. He finds it in the form of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), an ex soldier who was part of an elite group trained to tackle war using alternative, peaceful techniques, including mind control and other psychic abilities.
The group was, we see in flashbacks, run by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, successfully reprising his “The Dude” persona from The Big Lebowski), a Vietnam vet who investigated the hippie ways and filtered his findings into a training book, the New Earth Army Manual.
Cassady is on a secret mission, and Wilton gleefully joins him across Iraq on a bizarre trek which will take them to a secret army camp run by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), an ambitious and ruthless ex-colleague of Cassady.
The result is a mixed affair. Satire it isn’t. An amusing look at wacky mind control research financed by the military is closer to what the movie achieves.
Its tone is light-hearted and fun, but the movie leaves you thinking that an opportunity has narrowly been missed. With a dream cast including Clooney, Spacey and Bridges (plus several strong supporting actors), this could have been so much funnier, had the story been pushed to the edge and not been centred around the McGregor character, who is the weakest link. The funniest running gag does involve him, though, as the secret army of psychics is referred to as the Jedis, a nice nudge in the direction of McGregor’s role in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Clooney is funny, but he does his funnyman act we have seen many times before. He is charming and sympathetic, but lacks the madness necessary to play the character of Cassady, a man who could be either extremely gifted or mad as a bat. As it is based on a book and a documentary, we know the story has some foundations in real life, although the boundaries become blurred and we are none the wiser by the end of it. Being set during the Bush years, it could have easily been a more bitingly funny affair, but even the cartoon character that Bush was is only referred to occasionally, more as a decoy to set the film in a specific timeframe.
Bridges is heart warming as the ex-soldier who investigates ways of opening one’s mind and maximising one’s Jedi potential, Spacey plays the creepy Hooper with glee, but one feels, again, that the movie could have been so much more than the sum of its characters.
Well written, although the narrating voice can sometimes grate, this film will entertain you and make you wonder about what else might be going on behind those training doors. As for the revelations that are implied as the movie starts (‘more of this is true than you would believe’), well, you might need to use your imagination for that.
No extras were included in our review copy.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.