There’s nothing wrong with a movie being light. The Men Who Stare At Goats is
light. Very light. Light as in you walk out of the theater, turn to
your friend and say ‘Let’s get something to eat’ and then never think
about the movie again. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable; during
its very brief runtime you will enjoy The Men Who Stare At Goats.
You’ll laugh at George Clooney and you’ll appreciate director Grant
Heslov’s deadpan tone. But when you walk out of the theater the film
will simply slide off of you. I actually had to take a minute to simply
remember it as one of the films I’ve seen in the past week at Fantastic
Fest.



The film is based on a book by Jon Ronson; the British journalist investigated some
of the weirdest – and possibly most important – moments in recent US
Army history, all centered around the New Earth Army, a hippie dippie
psychic spy division. The First Earth Battalion pioneered non-lethal
tactics that are in use today, invented the ‘Be All You Can Be’ Army
catchphrase and started going down a weird path of psy-ops that finally
ended up being used in the sands of Iraq, being used to torture
prisoners.



Ronson’s book begins very light, with an almost mocking tone about the
First Earth Battalion. But as the journalist uncovered more
information, the book takes a darker turn. Finally he ends up in Iraq,
where he witnesses New Earth techniques being used against detainees in
dark ways that were never intended – men locked in shipping containers
being subjected to strobe lights and repeats of Barney the Purple
Dinosaur songs 24 hours a day. When he returned home he wrote about
what he saw; it caused a minor scandal but the torture, which seemed
mild to outside observers, was treated as a joke by the media.



Reading the book when the movie was announced I assumed this was what
had interested Clooney and Heslov. Ronson’s book got fairly dark in the
end, and it plays out almost like a tragedy, as the good intentions of
these soldiers – who called themselves Jedi Warriors – was twisted for
more evil purposes. That’s a dramatically satisfying story, and it’s
one that peeks under the antiseptic corners of modern warfare, where we
kill our enemies at a distance and where our fallen soldiers were, for
a long time, undocumented on their return trips home.



But Peter Straughan, the screenwriter, mostly sidesteps those issues.
They appear at the end, but without much weight. In fact, once the
movie gets to the stuff that was darkest in the book it turns into a
slobs vs snobs comedy with a denouement that seems straight out of a
hippie version of Meatballs (Soyballs)?
The film makes a mention of how the media trivialized the torture
Ronson uncovered (or I should say the character standing in for Ronson,
Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton), but it feels guilty of doing the same,
just not to the same degree the folks on The Today Show
did. And it’s this stuff that would have lent the film the heft it
needed to stick with you as you walked out of the theater. It would
have connected in a deeper, bigger way instead of being a pleasant
diversion.



Again, there’s nothing wrong with a pleasant diversion! I have no doubt
that the folks behind the film are capable of much more than that
should they set their minds to it. This isn’t Heslov’s (Clooney’s
longtime producing partner and the writer of Good Night, and Good Luck)
feature debut, but it’s been so long since his first movie you’d be
forgiven for thinking so. Heslov manages the incredibly tricky job of
keeping his tone from getting too silly, something that can be tough
when talking about some of the more outre First Earth Battalion
(renamed New Earth Army for the movie) projects and ideas. And in the
end while he and Straugharn are obviously at the very least skeptical
of the psychic spying work the group did, they respect the strangeness
and uniqueness of the group’s vision and concepts for a changed Army
that rejects wholesale violence and imperialism.



It should almost go without saying that Clooney is great. He plays an
amalgam of real people from the book in a completely fictional framing
sequence, and he brings a delightfully unhinged feeling to the part.
The magic of the casting, though, is that he also brings his
Clooney-ism; while a lot of what the character is claiming – he can
dissipate clouds with his minds, he once stopped the heart of a goat by
staring at it – is looney in the extreme, Clooney has a natural
charisma and authority that makes you buy it. That’s vital for the
relationship between himself and McGregor (a Scotsman playing an
American based on an English character. McGregor’s American accent
isn’t horrible, but maybe they should have just made him British),
playing a small-town newspaperman who stumbles into the history of the
First Earth Army as he tries to be a war correspondent in Iraq.
McGregor needs to be incredulous of the claims but also taken enough to
stick with Clooney’s character and to continue digging into the history
of the group.



The only man on Earth capable of out-cooling George Clooney was cast as
the man behind the First Earth Army; Jeff Bridges plays the lightly
fictionalized character of Bill Django, an Army man turned Army shaman
turned broken down old drunk. The other actors look faintly ridiculous
in ‘young man’ make up for flashbacks to the 1980s heyday of the New
Earth Army, but Bridges is perfect as a younger man and as an older
man. It’s actually amazing how well and simply he creates the
difference between different phases of Django’s life; in the modern
scenes Bridges appears to be genuinely bloated and unwell, while in the
flashbacks he has the energy and confidence of a man half his age. I’m
sure make-up played a big part in both eras, but much of the credit
must go to Bridges’ remarkable physical acting.



Kevin Spacey is the bad guy of the piece, a psychic spy who goes to the
Dark Side. He’s appropriately slimy, and he doesn’t have much aging
done on him beyond a hairpiece, making him seem like an evil ageless
being. Spacey’s actually a lot of fun; the actor has had a rough patch
for the last decade or so, but when he’s not making sappy pieces of
failed Oscar bait he’s a terrific comic actor, and he’s mostly great in
this film.



I really enjoyed watching The Men Who Stare At Goats. I
laughed often. I had a good time in the movie theater, and I imagine
that if I hadn’t read Ronson’s excellent book I would have learned a
thing or two about a very strange period in the history of the US
military (the film, while changing names and other details, maintains
striking fidelity to the basic facts of history). But the film makes no
impression and leaves no lasting mark. In the end it’s a missed
opportunity; even if Heslov hadn’t wanted to get as dark as the book,
had wanted to maintain his light, quirkily deadpan tone, he could have
managed to find a way to give the film more heft and meaning.

7.5 out of 10