The Men Who Stare At Goats

Sony Pictures. Out March 4, 2010.  Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey. Directed by Grant Heslov.
Rated M (Drug use, violence, coarse language and brief nudity). 94 min.

This is a film about psychic US military units in the Iraq war, and we are told when it begins that aspects of it may or may not be true. Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) plays the role of a journalist from an Ann Arbor newspaper, who goes off, after his marriage breaks up, to locate a story about US involvement in the Gulf War. At a local bar, he has a chance encounter with Special Forces Operator, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who he accompanies to Iraq. Bob is intrigued by the story that Lyn tells him. Lyn has spent a lot of time with the New Earth Army, a unit of men, led by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), which cultivates extra sensory perception to allow the US army to win wars non-violently. The special abilities of people in the unit, known as a squad of warrior monks, include making oneself invisible, walking through walls, bursting clouds, and manipulating human thought.  Kevin Spacey plays the role of Larry Hooper who is jealous of Lyn’s psychic skills and does all in his power to make sure the special squad fails. Larry has a different view from Lyn about how to implement the philosophy of the New Earth Army. Lyn is an army man trapped in the psyche of a free-spirited person, while Larry is malevolent and obsessed with the dark side of human potential.

Lyn believes that he and other New Earth soldiers have lost their powers because he has used his abilities inhumanely to stop the heart of a goat. After a series of incidents, both he and Bob get lost in the desert, and turn up at a private research firm, commandeered by Larry, which is engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats, and some captured locals. Eventually, Lyn and Bill fly off together in a helicopter, never to be heard of again, after asking Bob before they go to make sure that the whole story is revealed to the public. The news that goes to air fails to treat the special abilities of the New Earth Army with any seriousness at all, and the film ends with Bob exercising his psychic abilities, when he runs through a solid wall in his office, so demonstrating that he has acquired the abilities of a Jedi-Knight.    

Clooney plays the character of Lyn to the hilt, producing a bravura performance that is marvellously attention-getting. The film has an incredibly complex and original plot and three accomplished actors give their roles all that they have to produce a movie that comments zanily on the absurdities of war. The solid acting of four highly professional talents helps to make this absurdist comedy involving. With a plot as incredulous as this one, the humour frequently lapses into slapstick, and the film runs the risk of farcically undermining the seriousness of its messages on war. However, the director of the film, Grant Heslov, uses lighting and situation to great effect and the film is intelligently stylish and sophisticated. If one can accept the premise that there are crazy Jedi-Knights in the US army, who use psychic skills in which they have been trained, this is a movie that entertains. Its link with reality for some, however, will look tenuous. In the final analysis, the film is neither a provocative thinking-piece on war, nor a hilarious spoof on its absurdities.

This is not a typical comedy and its quirkiness has an edgy feel to it, and you come away from the film thinking there might be more to it than you first thought. For some the parody may not be worth the wait; it all seems too much like trying to find meaning in a world that has gone crazy. The performances in the film, however, are first-class. The movie offers you a wild, edgy ride through reality, that is uneasy, and, at times, genuinely comic.

Sony Pictures. Out March 4, 2010 

Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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