Friday, November 06, 2009
The Men Who Stare At Goats
The giant wink at the audience that is The Men Who Stare At Goats boasts a strong cast and unusual source material (Jon Ronson's book about the U.S. Army's parapsychological warfare efforts) but winds up being as smug and dramatically inert as an episode of Frontline. The film, directed by Grant Heslov and coproduced by its star George Clooney, quickly forsakes any interest in examining how and why the military studies techniques like "remote viewing" (psychically "traveling" to other locations). If you're curious about any of the practices described in Goats then you have got one up on those who made it. There's never any serious question about whether there is any validity to what the Army is doing after a Special Ops agent named Cassady (a very funny Clooney) tells reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) that attempts to train men in invisibility were "adapted to finding ways of not being seen." Heslov and Clooney are more interested in a capital-M Message: the methods practiced by free-spirited nutjobs like Lt. Col. Django (Jeff Bridges) were twisted into the tortures applied to Iraqi prisoners of war in U.S. custody.
If the filmmakers committed to their premise then Goats might have been something new, but Heslov and writer Peter Straughan can't even commit to a consistent tone. Wilton stumbles onto the "New Earth Army" after a chance meeting with Cassady in Kuwait. While the two make their way through Iraq in search of something never quite specified Wilton narrates a history of how Django convinced the post-Vietnam Pentagon to fund a secret unit that seeks to create better soldiers through telepathy with long hair, dancing, and drugs on the side. (There's also a banal subplot about Wilton getting over his divorce) Clooney and Bridges are a bit too obviously having a ball but the party is spoiled by the arrival of careerist officer Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who foreshadows the military's turn towards private contractors in Iraq and the eventual perversion of Django's unit. At least I think that's what Spacey's character foreshadows; it's hard to tell since he disappears for a long stretch of the film. It all adds up to a counter-history of the Iraq war in which the worst excesses of the American military can be undone by a reporter and a half-senile old hippie with access to a stash of LSD. Except of course that they can't be. It's a debatable point whether too many films have taken on Iraq too close to the conflict, but The Men Who Stare At Goats sacrifices storytelling for satire and wish fulfillment while the history its lampooning is still being written.