Bringing a spirit of silliness to the War on Terror

The Men Who Stare At Goats (M). Running time: 93 minutes. Director: Grant Heslov. Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey

The Men Who Stare at GoatsIt's a question for the ages: Can George Clooney act? Detractors suggest he always simply 'plays himself'. But it's hard to think of more than one role (and the less said about his stint as Batman the better) in which he has not been, at the very least, perfectly credible. That in itself is no small feat.

That's particularly true when the character in question is a middle aged former military man who believes he has psychic superpowers. Who claims to be able to become invisible or block a punch with just the power of his mind, and who activates his powers by listening to American rock band Boston's '70s hit 'More Than A Feeling'. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, Clooney brings not only credibility, but even dignity, to just such a ludicrous character.

Lyn Cassady was part of a secret military unit in the late 1970s, the New Earth Army (NEA), led by khaki-clad hippie Bill Django (Bridges), which aimed to harness the abilities of 'gifted' soldiers. They were trained to walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and kill goats with the power of their minds. So says Cassady.

He imparts these secrets to lovelorn young investigative journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor). Wilton is skeptical but, vulnerable in his current heartbroken state and desperate to reaffirm his manhood, he accompanies Cassady on a bizarre quest into the deepest deserts of present day, US-occupied Iraq.

The plot cuts back and forth between their oddball road trip and the fraught history of the NEA; from Django's New Age conversion on the battle fields of Vietnam (he noticed that the human instinct to not kill was so strong that new soldiers would deliberately aim their weapons over the enemy's head) to the NEA's idealistic inception and LSD fuelled training exercises, to its eventual implosion due to infiltration by certain overly-ambitious forces.

As you can probably guess, The Men Who Stare at Goats is silly. I say 'silly' using my best, clipped, Graham-Chapman-in-starchy-military-attire impersonation. It's the sort of absurd, hilarious silliness you might attribute to Monty Python and their ilk. All the actors commit wholeheartedly to this spirit of silliness.

In a demonstration to the NEA of the power of mind over matter, one guest guru hooks a weight to his genitals and holds it aloft. His students are suitably impressed, although one does ask the obvious question: 'What is the practical application?' Later, during a test of telepathic ability, an arrogant young recruit (Spacey) rolls his eyes back in his head as his 'spirit guide' predicts, in an extravagant falsetto, the contents of a box. He guesses wrong.

The punchline to all this is that the film is woven around a thread oftruth. The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on journalist Jon Ronson's2004 non-fiction book. Ronson provides an account of the formation in 1979 of a secret unit thatsought to harness the psychic powers of 'gifted' soldiers, and links this history to psychological interrogation techniques employed during the War on Terror.

WhetherHeslov intends some serious point in his film version is unclear. It's hard to bear much ill-feeling towards a film that contains plentyof genuinely funny moments, but it's harder still to keep a straight face whenthe film attempts to be poignant. The absurdity is spread so thick it's difficult todiscern any particular satirical point, aside from the occasional dutiful nod to non-violence and the tortuous capabilities of Barney the Dinosaur.

Despite this unevenness The Men Who Stare at Goats is anchored by Clooney's performance. Cassady is both a ludicrous caricature and a heartfelt portrayal of a man with genuine faith in his improbable abilities. His quest, it turns out, is a quest for redemption from events in his past, and this is what ultimately sustains the film.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: The Men Who Stare At Goats, Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey



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Existing comments

It was a pleasure, for a change, to be in a movie, surrounded by people
less than half my age shrieking with laughter at this film with its many genuinely funny moments. Laughter is certainly both contagious and good for the soul!

Maybe there is no 'particular satirical point' intended here. Perhaps it is just a celebration of the prevailing silliness from an era when there appeared to be some hope for the world.

Back before our Australian government became uncritically allied to the USA and Israel and unwaveringly supportive of the behaviours of these 'good friends' in their many wars of occupation. And back when screen entertainment did not celebrate violence.

DAVID A HICKS | 11 March 2010  

I understood this to be taken from a 'real' life situation?

Trishelle | 11 March 2010  

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