Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The Men Who Stare at Goats
By Elise Nakhnikian
There are already a lot of documentaries and a handful of fiction films about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – everything from the artful angst of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure to the labored metaphors of John Cusack’s War Inc. and the formulaic melodrama of Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah. It’s enough to constitute a whole sub-genre of war movie – or antiwar movie.
The latest addition to the list, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is not a great movie by a long shot, but I liked it better than most of the others. A lighthearted comedy with a few dark edges, it has a deadpan irreverence that makes it fun to watch, thumbing its nose like an eight-year-old at the casual cruelty, misplaced machismo, and flat-out absurdity of war.
It may not be quite fair to call this a U.S. occupation movie, since it aims at a broader target than our current military mishegoss. Part buddy/road movie and part antiwar satire, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows a naïve reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), as he uncovers a lightly fictionalized version of the First Earth Battalion. The Army created First Earth in 1979 to train soldiers to develop their paranormal abilities for use in warfare. Bob stumbles across one of the fictionalized battalion’s graduates, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), as he’s about to embark on some shadowy mission in Iraq, and Lyn reluctantly agrees to let Bob tag along.
Clooney plays Lyn in his best earnest/cocky mode, staring up through half-moon eyes as he hammers home some urgent point like a snake oil salesman who believes his own pitch. He’s supposed to be some kind of psychic genius, the battalion’s star recruit, but Peter Straughan’s screenplay delights in undercutting him. Lyn is constantly messing up simple tasks, like the bit you may have seen in the trailer where he crashes his car on the only rock for miles around by the side of a deserted desert road.
When we’re not watching the boys venture into Iraq, we’re seeing the story Lyn tells Bob about the New Earth Army acted out in flashbacks. Jeff Bridges is fun to watch as the battalion’s creator and original leader, Bill Django, a magnetic hippie who never met a New Age trend he didn’t like. But things drag a bit when his nemesis, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a promising recruit turned bad, takes over.
Based on a nonfiction book of the same title by Jon Ronson, the story ranges from a Vietnam flashback to Iraq during the first year of the U.S. occupation, nearly all of it played as broad farce. When someone picks up a gun in this movie, it looks more ludicrous than scary, especially when a carload of Blackwater-style American mercenaries turns an Iraqi street into a shooting gallery, starting an accidental battle with a matching clutch of soldiers-for-hire from another contracting firm.
Django’s soldiers looks pretty silly too, so it’s interesting to learn that they’re doing a lot of things the Army’s “psychic soldiers” have actually experimented with, like attempting to walk through walls and the bizarre exercise the movie is named for: trying to stare down goats and other animals until they drop dead.
The tone shifts abruptly sometimes, which doesn’t always work. When Bob and Lyn go home with an Iraqi citizen and see how his life has gotten shredded in the crossfire, the sobriety of their response feels right, but the amped-up goofiness of the feel-good ending, which felt like a non-ironic version of the ecstatic hippie dance at the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, tried too hard to convince me.
There’s also too much of Bob’s back story and the odd-couple bickering between him and Lyn. I suspect those parts of the movie felt tired even to the filmmakers, since they use gimmicks try to liven up some of that backstory (even staged as a pantomime narrated by his ubiquitous voice-over, I could have done without seeing Bob’s breakup with his wife), and some of Bob’s and Lyn’s squabbles sound canned.
But the movie bubbles back to life when it’s spoofing the military, regaining a deftly edited comic rhythm.
The overexposed, desaturated palette reminds me of Three Kings, another antiwar satire about Americans in the Middle East that also starred George Clooney. For all its stylized sequences and heist-movie drama, though, Three Kings was far darker and more realistic than this one. It was also much denser, a near-great film with emotional and moral heft.
This movie is in a whole different weight class than that one. Still, there’s an art to using a light touch when dealing with a heavy subject, and except for a few minor missteps, The Men Who Stare at Goats remains entertaining without being disrespectful or flat-out inane. Like the men of its title, it’s an odd duck – offbeat but kind of endearing.
Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity