THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
One initially regarded the films claim to be telling a true story as on the order of the same blatant wool-pulling over the eyes as the Coen Brothers Fargo (1996), The Blair Witch Project (1999) or The Fourth Kind (2009) and their similar (untrue) claims to be telling true stories. However, as the opening credits for the film announce, more of this is true than you would believe. Assuming that Jon Ronson was not making up what he documented in his book, many of the things that we see in the film actually occurred. The stories about training to mentally kill goats, the interview with the man who shows a videotape of himself psychically killing his hamster, the meeting with Major-General Stubbelbine who wants to master the ability to phase shift (or walk through walls) but keeps banging into them all happened according to Ronson. Bill Django is based on Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Channon who founded the First Earth Battalion using techniques fairly much as described here (and is apparently applying the same techniques today for multinational corporations Channon has a reasonable web presence and some of his writings make for interesting reading), while George Clooneys character is a combination of two real world characters Glenn Wheaton and Guy Savelli. Ronson also uncovered that the US military were employing many of the psychological techniques developed by the psi-ops unit in modern-day Middle East war zones, including the Predator weapon that looks innocuous and has multiple deadly uses and the torturing of prisoners by playing them the Barney theme song. (Although one thing that the film appears to have made up is the climactic incident where LSD is placed in the drinking water of US military units stationed in Iraq).
The Men Who Stare at Goats was the second directorial film from Grant Heslov. Heslov is better known as an actor and has played various roles without attaining a high-profile presence he is probably best known within genre material as the sidekick thief in The Scorpion King (2002) or as the lab assistant in Congo (1995). Heslov had previously directed Par 6 (2002), a comedy about a family who try to build a golf course, but hardly anybody saw that. Heslov has been a long-time associate of this films lead actor George Clooney he produced several Clooney starring films including Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The American (2010), produced and co-wrote the script for Clooneys highly acclaimed directorial outing Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) (for which they were both nominated for an Academy Award) and produced Clooneys subsequent directorial efforts Leatherheads (2008), The Ides of March (2011) and The Monuments Men (2014), while the two also produced Ben Afflecks Argo (2012) and August: Osage County (2013). Heslov and Clooney are partners in the Smoke House production company, which they formed in 2006.
Grant Heslov has clearly set out to make something that hits in with the tone of a Coen Brothers comedy. He (and Jon Ronson) both approach the material as out-and-out farce. Heslov throws some highly amusing pieces be it images of soldiers trying to run through walls, a sidesplitting scene with Kevin Spacey trying to summon his spirit guides or the climactic scene where LSD is placed in the bases drinking water. A substantial weapon in Heslovs arsenal is his good friend George Clooney. Clooney never seems more in his element when getting the chance to throw it back in comedy roles and has an absolute field day here be it trying to psychically stare down gunmen, mentally move clouds or demonstrating various whacked-out psychic solider techniques to Ewan McGregor in the middle of the desert. On the other hand, perhaps in comparison to the Coen Brothers, The Men Who Stare at Goats seems to pull its punches. Grant Heslov seems to be treading lightly when it comes to the Iraq War perhaps due to the number of films critical of such that have flopped in recent years. He, for instance, drops altogether Ronsons investigation into the deployment of the psi-ops torture tactics at Abu Ghraib prison. There is a tone of farce particularly when it comes to the scenes of the two private security companies shooting each other up in the street but one keeps thinking that with the material the film has, it could have been built to an absurdist modern masterpiece akin to other military lunacy efforts like Dr Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Robert Altmans M.A.S.H. (1970) or Joseph Hellers Catch 22 (1961). The Men Who Stare at Goats is not an unenjoyable and unfunny film by any means; it just feels that it could have been more.
The other thing that one might query is the films approach. It seems to sit on the fence as to whether the psychic powers are real or not and sways both ways at various points without fully coming down on either side. George Clooney appears to be able to kill goats, move clouds about and remote view, while the films last throwaway gag is of Ewan McGregor finally mastering the technique of walking through a wall. At other points though, the film is making fun of Clooney trying to whip up an intense psychic stare and nothing happening, following dreams into the desert or the comic mishaps of assumptions about psychic powers going wrong like the opening scene with Stephen Langs general running into a wall. Clearly, the intention is that we look upon these scenes as comedic ones about people who are delusional about what they believe they can do. However, this uncertainty of approach confuses if the powers are real then what we surely have is a frightening real world possibility of some X-Men squad, which would surely mean that approaching such a revolutionary discovery as farce is doing it a disservice. The other (more likely) possibility is that all involved are delusional about their ability to do these things, which surely says frightening things about the lunacy of the people running the largest army in the world. However, the film seems to muddy the waters here by playfully saying that some of it was real and not taking more of a rigorously sceptical position about how deluded these individuals are.
George Clooney is the clear star of the show and seems to be having the most fun he has had on screen in years. Opposite him, Ewan McGregor does the painedly earnest hand wringing he customarily does. (It does seem ironic casting McGregor as a journalist investigating a unit who call themselves Jedi Warriors, with he having just come from playing the young Obi-wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels). Jeff Bridges play about his 157th aging hippie role but gets a good many of the films laughs. Kevin Spacey is unfortunately lumbered with a one-dimensional villain role, nevertheless stands out in odd moments.
(Nominee for Best Actor (George Clooney) at this sites Best of 2009 Awards).