The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Director: Grant Heslov

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Wales is a really happening place these days. First, Welsh television writer/producer Russell Davies made Cardiff the center of extraterrestrial activity in the smashing BBC drama Torchwood, and then Cardiff-born Jon Ronson’s take on New Age warfare in his stranger-than-fiction investigative book The Men Who Stare at Goats got the full Hollywood treatment. The premise—creating psychic soldiers for microsurgical missions like teasing out where in the world Osama bin Laden is—may seem a little more far-fetched than some of the military’s experimental schemes, but a good deal of science fiction has become science fact due to the military’s pioneering research. That director Grant Heslov treats the idea with complete incredulity makes the film The Men Who Stare at Goats a very enjoyable comedy with an underutilized brain.

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A couple of big Hollywood guns with some experience in both absurd tales of war and the hippie dippie lifestyle—George Clooney and Jeff Bridges—are at the core of the First Earth Batallion, an experiment in psychic warfare the U.S. Army began, we are told, to compete with a similar effort the Soviet Union launched because they believed a false news report that the United States was engaging in such research. Cold War paranoia? Check. Bridges, as Army officer Bill Django, is chosen to head up this effort based on his years-long immersion in the hippie and New Age communities looking for answers to a vision he had after being shot in Vietnam. Counterculture infiltrating mainstream? Check. Lyn Cassady (Clooney), Django’s most promising recruit, left the Army, disillusioned with himself for actually stopping a goat’s heart with his mind—an offense against nature that went against everything Django had preached. Cute animal pratfall? Check. We learn the whole story of the First Earth Batallion and enter into a secret mission through Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), an Ann Arbor newspaperman who encounters Cassady in Kuwait, where Wilton has gone to cover the first Iraq invasion to prove he’s a manly, exciting guy after his wife Debora (Rebecca Mader) has rejected him and their boring lifestyle. Midlife crisis? Check.

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With Clooney and Bridges front and center in this over-the-top comedy, it’s hard not to think Coen Brothers. That association, I believe, is intentional, just as Clooney is named for the spiritual head of the Beats, Neal Cassady, and talks to the man who played the young Obi-Wan Kenobi about training to be a Jedi warrior in the batallion. Kevin Spacey, as Larry Hooper, a recruit jealous of Cassady’s abilities, captures the acolyte-guru dynamics of New Age cults, but is given little else to do as a disgruntled movement spoiler. The great Steven Lang, who plays Brigadier General Dean Hopgood, is a Colonel Jack D. Ripper rip-off who mugs crazily but doesn’t display the conviction Sterling Hayden brought to that role that grounds him and the whole of Dr. Strangelove in a rather scary reality.

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The Men Who Stare at Goats flirts gently with the hard realities of war. It introduces an Iraqi, Mahmud Daash (Waleed Zuaiter), who escapes from one group of kidnappers at the same time Cassady and Wilton escape from another. Cassady, a very distracted driver who manages to crash into a rock (“Iraq,” get it?) in an otherwise sandy desert, also sideswipes Daash, picks him up, and then manages to get them all captured by some war profiteers in the Halliburton mode. None of the Americans can get Mahmud’s first name right. The commentary on the average Iraqi caught up in an insanity of greed is there, but barely survives the relentless ridiculousness of the film’s comic set pieces. Better was the climax in which the personnel at the secret base housing a modernized First Earth Batallion under the direction of Hooper fall victim to LSD-spiked water and eggs and trip out on their own visions—a better metaphor for mass duping of the American people is hard to imagine.

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Still this film fails to make the kind of impact that Dr. Strangelove did because it chooses to be a comedy rather than a true satire. We’ve been led down the garden path of wartime and counterculture clichés and been nudged so hard by self-referential movie gags that the antiwar messages act like too little salt in a stew of ideas. I also think it’s a mistake to dismiss psychic phenomena out of hand as all a big joke—in a world in which our perceptions of reality are distorted almost daily by the media messages we receive and we regularly cloud ourselves with recreational drugs, is it really that farfetched to suppose that people with mercenary and aggressive motives might be close to blowing the doors of perception off their hinges?

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I know it may seem churlish to complain of too little message in an otherwise highly entertaining movie, but I fear the sad truths of Iraq and the extralegal nature of some military operations will suffer the same fate Wilton complains about at the end of this movie. Having told the truth in his book, Wilton finds its only mass impact was the revelation that the Barney song “I Love You” was used to torture Iraqi prisoners. This movie, too, is kid’s stuff in the war on war.

  • Rod spoke:
    6th/12/2009 to 8:00 pm

    Now that I’ve finally watched this, I’ve got to say that I appreciated Heslov’s efforts precisely not to force the anti-war aspect, and reflect more with a droll irony a bizarre metaphor for the counterculture/militarist split of the ’60s and the way it still echoes throughout the cultural landscape, and the occasionally hilarious scenes that made a meal out of the concept of one side of the camp trying make use of the tropes of the other, and vice versa. The way it sharpened to a point in the moment when MacGregor saw the shackled guy being tortured with the Barney song located the repulsiveness of the moment, and I felt it dramatised the disconnection between the idealism of the Iraq project, represented by the Jedi, and the seamy truth of it. Whilst I found the story finally weak and the film far from great, I too found it quite a bracing movie.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/12/2009 to 8:59 pm

    I would have appreciated it more if the truth about Iraq weren’t still being denied in a big way in this country. But I do think Heslov handled the varied threads of this story with a deft hand, absolutely.

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