reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Grant Heslov, director. Peter Straughan, script, inspired by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book. Starring: George Clooney (Lyn Cassady), Ewan McGregor (Bob Wilton), Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Kevin Spacey (Larry Hooper), Robert Patrick (Todd Nixon), Stephen Lang (Gen. Hopgood)
Zoomers will recall with fondness the old TV spy spoof series Get Smart, which had its secret agent star Maximilian Smart use as a comedy riff the expression, “would you believe?” Of course, the “believe” queries would quickly ramp up into absurdity.
It turns out that Mel Brooks’ comic conceits for the series were a lot closer to reality than anyone suspected at the time. Would you believe that the US Army would take a drugged out Vietnam vet seriously about his hippie inspired notions of creating “New Earth” peaceful warriors? No? Well, would you believe that they’d reenlist such a person into the Army to train and lead a group of special ops in paranormal research, meditation and psychic power? OK, Chief. Well, would you believe that they would have those ops engage in experiments involving walking through walls and attempting to kill animals by will power?
Would you believe that it would succeed—and that one truly special op would actually kill a goat by staring at it?
The new black comedy The Men who Stare at Goats insists that the audience believe all of that—and more. Though the film stars George Clooney as Lyn Cassady, the man with the killer stare, Jeff Bridges as the Vietnam era visionary Bill Django and Ewan McGregor as the man who lives to tell the tale, this isn’t exactly a fiction. In fact, the film’s opening title asserts “More of this is true than you would believe.”
In fact, The Men who Stare at Goats is based on a non-fiction book by the eminent UK Guardian political writer Jon Ronson. McGregor’s character Bob Wilton is a fictional construct, a reporter from Ann Arbor who comes to Kuwait in early 2002, intending to enter the Iraq war zone. There he meets Lyn Cassady, the legendary US Army goat killer, apparently retired, but also intent on getting into the action. Next thing you know, they’re doing a comic variation of “desert storm,” driving a jeep through the sand into a rock and getting kidnapped by armed Iraqis.
While Wilton and Cassady deal with their situation in Iraq, a series of flashbacks tells us the colourful history of Django, the crazy soldier of peace, who tried to impart new age philosophy into the military. Of course, every Eden must have its serpent and in this case, the wonderfully insidious Kevin Spacey, a Django acolyte who can’t perform paranormal tricks on the level of Clooney’s Cassady, plays the snake. The unit is shut down during the Reagan era, with the fates of Spacey’s Larry Hooper and Bridges’ Django not immediately explained to the audience.
The final act of The Men who Stare at Goats is played out in a compound financed by the US but operated by a private company—owned by Hooper. It’s the only safe place that Cassady and Wilton can find. There, they meet Django again and in a denouement influenced by LSD and righteous anger, the legacy of the New Earth Army experiment is played out.
The Men who Stare at Goats is a crazy combination of The Big Lebowski and Dr. Strangelove with a bit of Apocalypse Now thrown in. Does it work as well as those great films? Well, no. Would you believe Catch-22 and I Was a Male War Bride? Ok, chief. How ‘bout this? The book is funnier and more appalling because it’s true. But Bridges and Clooney elevate this odd story into a quirky film worth seeing. No masterpiece, but, hey, it’s early for Bush-era films to make that cut.