Review for The Men Who Stare At Goats
It's been a long time since I last judged a book by its cover, and even longer since I approached a film in the same way. With the joys of the Internet, seeing a film cold is practically impossible. Even before it opens in cinemas, someone has reviewed, spoiled it, and bought the T-shirt. There's something to be said for approaching a film with absolutely no preconceptions. But as I said, that's impossible now, even if you bury your head in the sand, you'll still hear the drumbeats of a bush telegraph, giving away the ending to the Sixth Sense. But with The Men Who Stare At Goats, I came pretty close indeed to watching it without preconceptions. For one thing it's the name that had me judging it as a must see film. The sheer audacity of naming a film 'The Men Who Stare At Goats', it tantalises and titillates. It puts me in mind of a Monty Python song. Upon hearing that title, I made up my mind (almost) to watch the film in the cinema. Then I saw a bit of the trailer, with George Clooney lecturing Ewan McGregor of all people, on Jedi philosophy. 'To hell with the cinema!' I thought, 'I'm buying this one.' Having had little more than the trailer and the promotional blurb to inspire me, I wandered into my local supermarket and let the moths fly free from my wallet.
Bob Wilton is a small town journalist who has just had a messy break up from his wife. As men are wont to do in such situations, he looks for a handy war to lose himself in. Fortunately, it's 2003, which means that the second Iraq war has just started, and Bob heads to Kuwait, looking for a way to get himself embedded. He's not having any luck, until he meets a businessman ostensibly looking for opportunity in Iraq. Except Lyn Cassady is no businessman. Bob recognises his name from an interview he did a few months earlier with a would-be psychic. He heard tell of a government plan in the late seventies and early eighties to create super-soldiers, Jedi warriors so to speak, who could perform remarkable feats with the power of the mind. The star candidate was one Lyn Cassady, and he's now sitting across a table from him in a Kuwaiti hotel. Lyn is heading into Iraq on a mission, he's been reactivated, and a coincidence, or perhaps a meeting of minds, convinces him to take Bob along with him. Heading into a war zone isn't exactly easy, but Lyn takes the time to tell Bob of the New Earth Army that the US Government briefly invested in, the brainchild of Vietnam veteran named Bill Django. Bob is soon taking his first steps into a whole new world.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer comes across with all the clarity that you would expect from a modern feature film. There is an occasional smidgen of softness that could be attributed to the source material, and the minor moiré and aliasing that betray the limits of the DVD format. The Men Who Stare At Goats is also available on Blu-ray of course. The film itself is quite effective in the way that Puerto Rico, New Mexico, and California stand in for Vietnam and Iraq. There are also some really good make up and aging effects to show the growth and decline of the characters over 20 or 30 years.
The sound comes in DD 5.1 English of course, the all-important dialogue is clear, and there is a nice bit of surround presence when the on screen action requires. This isn't a heftily sound designed film though, and more noticeable is the quirky soundtrack, as well as some well-chosen period pop and rock tunes. English subtitles are there should you need them.
The Men Who Stare At Goats comes packaged in a comedy red Amaray case, slipped inside a card slipcase that repeats the sleeve artwork and blurb exactly. There's no inlay. What happened to those inserts that you used to get with DVD?
The disc autoplays with trailers for Law Abiding Citizen, 44 Inch Chest, and an advert for a random chocolate confection.
There are two commentaries to appreciate, beginning with one from the director, Grant Heslov. He's a little gappy, but there are some moments of interest in his comments, some stating the obvious, and some entertaining anecdotes. It's all pretty standard for a director's commentary.
Of more interest is the commentary from author Jon Ronson, whose book was adapted into this film. It's worth paying attention to as he is, after removing the dramatic licence, the Bob Wilton character, and he experienced the psychic wing of the US Army for himself. He points out what's real and what's fiction in this film. What is real turns out to be bloody weird, while what's fiction is actually pure Hollywood.
Goats Declassified - The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion lasts 13 minutes, and has talking head interviews with Jon Ronson, and some of the men he encountered as part of his research. This is the real life inspiration for the film.
Project Hollywood - A Classified Report lasts 8 minutes, and is the standard EPK addition to the film, and the cast and the crew speak briefly about the movie.
There are 4 minutes of deleted scenes; the character profiles are essentially 4 trailers for the film, focusing on Lyn, Bob, Bill and Larry. The disc concludes with the theatrical trailer.
It's real! It's all real! Not the spoon benders, mind readers and yogic fliers that is, the jury is still out on all that. It's that people high up in governments and in the military took all this seriously enough to invest in and try to develop these powers for use in warfare and counterintelligence. Of course this isn't really a surprise to me, I delved into tales of the occult and unexplained long before The X Files popularised it on TV, and I had read of proper, scientific attempts to explore, experiment and categorise these unexplained abilities. I had read of Kirlian auras, I had seen those symbolic cards that mind readers would try to divine (mostly in Ghostbusters), and I remember reading of a Russian woman who stopped the heart of a frog by the power of her mind. The Women Who Stare At Frogs? Maybe there's room for a sequel here…
I wasn't then totally stunned by the subject matter of this film, although perhaps I was more surprised that it took so long for it to be made. After all, the paranormal bandwagon has long since departed, and lets face it, The X Files did do that genre into the ground. But I must admit that I was just as tickled to see Robert Patrick in a film where they were talking about Super-soldiers (A season 8 X Files subplot), as I was to see Ewan McGregor confronted by George Clooney's Jedi abilities. And that's where the joy in this film lies, in seeing this powerful, full-on organisation, the US Army, investing and devoting time to such far out thinking as paranormal abilities. The comedy comes from how straight it's played, how seriously the characters take it. And the film doesn't make a decision as to whether it's real or not. It wavers; it wanders from plausibility to absurdity and back again. It will give you just enough of a taste that you start wondering if there is something to all this, and will then hit you with a reversal that makes you kick yourself for taking it seriously, even for just a second.
This is George Clooney's element, and as Lyn Cassady, he creates the quintessential such character for the film, absurd and somehow convincing at the same time. He does look like a man who could stare a goat to death, but also the sort of man that would have you bet on the goat, just in case. Jeff Bridges is amazing, as usual, as Bill Django, the man who has an epiphany on the battlefield in Vietnam, and goes about developing this new army. It's an amazing enough transformation as he ages some thirty years in this film, but that's nothing compared to the character's transformation from hard bitten grunt to new age hippy.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is tremendously funny, better than ninety percent of the comedies that come out of the Hollywood conveyer belt these days, mostly because it is quirky, offbeat and downright original. Of course it isn't a pure Hollywood film at all, rather made jointly with BBC Films, and UK Lottery funding. That's money well spent. It's entertaining, it tickles with some wonderful characterisations, and it definitely fills ninety minutes with fun, wit and no little heart. But it doesn't quite hang together. There are three strands to this film, the main story set during the Gulf War as Lyn Cassady and Bob Wilton go on their mission into Iraq, and the flashbacks to the seventies and eighties as Bill Django goes about creating his Jedi soldiers, bringing a flavour of the hippy commune into the harsh military discipline of Fort Bragg. This is great, funny stuff, the heart of the film. But there is that third strand doesn't quite gel.
It's the need to make political comment on the war in Iraq, and the mindset of the people who pursue it. Of course there are countless questions about the second Gulf War, about the motives behind the invasion, the goals of regime change and winning hearts and minds, contrasted with the way that various companies raced to exploit the ravaged country, the way that people were dealt with in places like Abu Ghraib. I just don't think that this is the film to do it in. It's a light-hearted comedy, something of an adventure story, an oddball road movie. The political comment either seems a little cheapened by the comedy, or there is something of a dark pall cast over what should be an utterly goofy bit of nonsense. It seems like a last minute addition to the film, and leaves it feeling just a little bitty and piecemeal. It is forgivable though, as the effect certainly isn't terminal. It's best to take The Men Who Stare At Goats simply as a funny movie, and as such, I had a blast. I do have reservations about its rewatchability value. I'll know for sure the next time I stare at it…