Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats is an outlandish hippie paean to outlandish hippie-ism, using true facts about some of the weirdest ideas ever embraced by the military from Jon Ronson's non-fiction book of the same name to create characters who can spout and explicate them.
It's not exactly a true story, but it is a very funny and well executed showcase for Heslov's directing talents, and especially the acting talents of Ewan MacGregor as Bob Wilton, the fictional Ronson/journalist stand-in, George Clooney as Jedi master Lyn Cassady, Jeff Bridges as Bill Django, the Jedi masters' master--a sort of military "Dude" redux from the Coen Brothers' classic, The Big Lebowski--and Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, the actually rather amiable, if still evil, villain.
The film imagines a psychic/druggie military corps of the real-life proposal for a "First Earth Batallion," a peace force using music, peaceful thoughts and environmentalism instead of more familiar war-like tactics to prevent war and end hostilities. While the film implies that some form of this may actually have existed, without having read the book, but only some reviews and background information, I gather that it probably did not, or at least not, perhaps, in the form portrayed in the film, though one might almost wish it had.
I am aware of some crazier things the government has done, though, so it's not too much of a stretch to play this out the way it is done here, and it seems necessary and useful to the comic story, as well as to trace how the ideas from the proposal, as well as other New Age, psychic and psychological tactics infiltrated the U.S. military from the Reagan administration up through the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars of today.
MacGregor is very good portraying a small-town journalist whose strange encounter with a psychic who has used his mind to trouble some hamsters sticks with him as his need to impress a woman prompts him to head to Iraq near the start of the current conflict. He can't seem to really get in the swing of the combat coverage, however, until a fortuitous meeting with Clooney's Cassady helps him open up his mind to a different kind of war story.
The story of the "New Earth Army" is told through flashbacks introduced by narration from MacGregor, and it's mostly fun and fact-filled, though the facts are not exactly as told here. The film strikes a nice balance between an ongoing quest and the roots of the adventure, until they come together again at the end. It's pretty cool to see Bridges, Clooney and Spacey age backwards and forwards twenty-five years pretty credibly.
Though most (all?) of the Jedi tricks, tactics and beliefs presented are risible and, basically, hogwash, the film does a good job of graphically showing ways in which a belief system put into practice--almost any belief system--can change and direct lives, and mark people forever. Not everything about the psychic/New Age/druggie cultures, after all, is ridiculous or useless, by any stretch. Peace, situational and wider global awareness, projected confidence and the power of thoughtfulness, meditation and surprise attacks all get their due in a gently humorous but semi-profound way. (Telling someone without irony that one believes one is a Jedi warrior is a sort of surprise attack of its own.)
The film is its own, and holds its own, while also including many sorts of not-exactly-referential movie references, including the casting of Ewan MacGregor, the recent Obi-Wan, in a movie full of Star Wars references, which makes for some amusing and ironic side moments, and the aforementioned similarities of Bridges's New Age stoner/investigator with Jeff Lebowski. Clooney's Lyn Cassady is some sort of cousin of his previous Coen Brothers character from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, pugnacious, odd and with a similar look and comic whipping head movements. Joseph Campbell's concept of "The Hero's Journey," a major George Lucas influence, is dialogue-checked, and the film is as much of a magical/mythical quest as anything. The sand dunes of Iraq also recall Star Wars aesthetics (and Clooney's previous humorous foray there in Three Kings), and one character even has a Darth Vader-y prosthetic arm.
I would say it's a bit thin, and wants a bit less of a lazy ending, but it's such a hugely enjoyable tour-de-force of humor and ideas that this does not matter much. And the ending does have its own resonance, for a completely made-up sequence of events, so maybe I'm just a little sore that the movie had to end.
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