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Men Who Stare at Goats, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/06/09 10:00:00

"Coens-lite or Coens-like? Either way, it's spot-on satire/black comedy."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Adapted by Peter Straughan from Jon Ronson’s bestselling, non-fiction book and directed by Grant Heslov ("Good Night, Good Luck"), "The Men Who Stare at Goats," is a sardonic, satiric account of the U.S. Army’s little-known First Earth Battalion, a one-time, super-secret battalion dedicated to creating super-soldiers to fight current and future wars. Cleverly, expertly fictionalized, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" hits more often (far more often, actually) than it misses its targets (e.g., the U.S. military, psychic research, New Age philosophies, psychological torture, and ultimately, the “War on Terror”), while avoiding the pitfalls other films in the Iraq War or War on Terror sub-genre have encountered.

The Men Who Stare at Goats focuses initially on Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a small-town journalist. Wilton sees a one-off story in a local, Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who claims involvement in super-secret First Earth Battalion under the command of Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang), the U.S. Army’s chief of intelligence, and training as a psychic warrior. Lacey asserts he can kill with his mind via “remote viewing.” As evidence, he shows Wilton a videotape of a fainting hamster and mentions the battalion’s best psychic warrior, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Wilton dismisses Lacey’s farfetched story, but after his wife, Debora (Rebecca Mader), leaves him for his editor and the U.S. invades Iraq, Wilton sees an opportunity to prove his rugged manliness by becoming a combat journalist. Nothing, of course, goes according to plan.

In Iraq, Wilton coincidentally crosses paths with Cassady, a former Special Forces veteran working in Iraq as a contractor. Cassady reveals his background with the First Earth Battalion and his highly unorthodox training under Lt. Colonel Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam War veteran who, after the end of that war, went on a pilgrimage to uncover the hidden truths about the human mind. With Hapgood’s support, Django cultivated the psychological and psychic abilities of the men under his command via meditation, Yoga, and, where necessary, psychoactive drugs. Cassady also develops a toxic rivalry with Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a failed science-fiction writer who joins the battalion at a later date.

Heslov and Straughan interweave the battalion’s bizarre history, including an explanation for the film’s title (remote viewing used to stop the hearts of unlucky goats) with Wilton and Cassady’s increasingly chaotic, farcical experiences in Iraq. There, they cross paths with Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick), a bombastic senior executive from a U.S. security (read: mercenary) firm working in post-invasion Iraq, enterprising Iraqis eager to kidnap and ransom Wilton and Cassady, Mahmud Daash (Waleed Zuaiter), an unlucky Iraqi, and a government-funded contractor with a super-secret agenda, all while Cassady regales Wilton with borderline delusional stories and moves them both closer to a mission (Cassady claims he’s been reactivated for one more, last mission).

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" works on practically every level, dramatically (Wilton’s eye-opening experiences and personal transformations), narratively (dual timelines handled flawlessly), and satirically (of a military willing to explore any and all options in first, the Cold War and later, the War of Terror, and of New Age philosophies). Heslov also shows a strong command of pacing, editing, visual composition, and obtaining strong performances from a talented cast, from Ewan McGregor, in apprentice mode (the phrase” Jedi Warrior comes up half a dozen times in "The Men Who Stare at Goats"), a mustachioed George Clooney, in Coen Brothers-style frantic mode (e.g., "O Brother Where Are Thou"), and the ever-watchable Jeff Bridges, in Coen Brothers-style laidback mode (e.g., "The Big Lebowski").

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