I’ve spoken previously of the critic-blinding powers of George Clooney’s charm. No matter the quality of the film, no matter the quality of his performance – once he unveils his coy smile I find myself fawning over his seemingly endless supply of charisma. Should I ever need to be informed of bad news, I request that it be delivered by Mr. Clooney. No matter how awful the content of his announcement, I would likely stare adoringly at him with eyes wider than one of Hayao Miyazaki‘s creations. In a way, The Men Who Stare at Goats is bad news; it is an overwhelming disappointment considering the pedigree of talent in front of the camera and the amazing true story that serves as its inspiration. Of course, having Mr. Clooney involved in proceedings softens the blow considerably.
Now, don’t let my man-crush on Clooney make you wary of my ability to fairly critique his latest film. His charm does go a long way – yet in his most recent projects (Up in the Air, Fantastic Mr. Fox), it has only augmented already brilliant pictures. The Men Who Stare At Goats would be considered DOA if it weren’t for Clooney, as well as his eager co-stars Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and (to a lesser extent) Ewan McGregor. They are betrayed by a lazy script, as well as first-time director Grant Heslov, who is more concerned with lecturing the audience than with telling a story. Hmm, lecturing might be too generous a word for what Heslov does. He seems more like the liberal, left-wing hippie who plans to end all wars by encouraging people to take LSD and telling them to “just chill out man”. It’s the worst kind of left wing propaganda – the kind that makes no practical sense and simply confirms the worst suspicions of Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly.
McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a journalist who decides to embed himself in Iraq during the second Gulf War, to prove to his wife that he has some cojones. In Kuwait, he accidentally stumbles across Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former soldier who reveals that he was once part of an elite army unit intent on training psychic spies (or “Jedi warriors” as he continually reminds Wilton). Their abilities included (partial) invisibility, (potential) telekinesis and, most inexplicably, the power to kill goats with their mind. Perhaps unwisely, Wilton insists on joining Cassady on a secret mission into the heart of Iraq, during which time Cassady will explain to him the history of the New Earth Army, its founder – the peace-loving General Bill Django (Bridges), as well as its eventual downfall at the hands of sci-fi author Larry Hooper (Spacey). As you can already tell, this is the kind of story they call a “slam dunk”. How can you get something so fascinating and so unique wrong? Well…
If screenwriter Peter Straughan ever wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, I imagine every scenario would lead directly to safety. At every turn, he makes the most boring decision possible. The book upon which the film is based is merely a collection of chapters describing the U.S. military’s paranormal experiments, as uncovered by journalist Jon Ronson and documentarian John Sergeant. The onus is on Straughan to pull together an interesting narrative from this rich source material. So what does he do? He just makes it about a journalist uncovering the story. And instead of taking advantage of the infinite potential of these oddball (and mostly true) scenarios, he simply has Wilton explain what happens in voice over narration, reducing the most fascinating characters to silent figures during brief flashback sequences.
These sins are not nearly as offensive as Heslov’s confused moralising. During the film, General Django notes how some soldiers are so unwilling to kill during combat that they will shoot above the enemy’s head. Heslov’s aim is even worse. He’s unable to pick a target for his satirical barbs, and instead fires aimlessly, hoping that some stray bullets will hit “The Man” – whoever that is. He doesn’t exactly have the guts to call out the U.S. military, nor is he willing to make any specific comment on the Iraq war. His central thesis seems to be: “war is bad – kinda”. Hardly an Oliver Stone acolyte, is he?
Heslov grossly overcompensates for his inability to decry the United States’ military policies by making the Iraqi civilians and POWs more sympathetic than the big bad Americans – but not as sympathetic as those cute little goats! Amazingly, Barber and Django feel more distressed about their paranormal testing on goats than on the actual torture of Iraqis. Wow, way to completely deflate any semblance of an ethical argument Heslov! Again, if the film were a satire (or at least, a more effective one) such an imbalance in morality would make the film stronger. But, Heslov just seems to want to complain about – what? Cruelty towards goats? It sounds like a joke, but that’s the best I could pull from the film.
That being said, the film is very funny at times, although I suspect credit for that belongs to Clooney and Bridges, who are really giving it their all God bless ‘em. They are such natural actors that they manage to make this farcical scenario seem believable. The two of them have already learnt pitch black comedy from the masters –Joel and Ethan Coen. They never betray their characters, no matter how bizarre and unbelievable their decisions become. For their efforts, they save the film from being a total abomination.
Heslov starred as a terrorist in James Cameron’s hilariously dated (but still entertaining) action flick True Lies back in 1994. The Men Who Stare at Goats makes that film seem like a sensitive and balanced take on American/Middle Eastern relations. By the film’s end, all the characters come together in a celebratory haze of drugs and smug self-satisfaction. I wish I could discuss the infuriating final five minutes of the film, but that would fall into spoiler territory. But would it really matter if I spoiled the ending? After all, Heslov has already spoiled the rest. Thank goodness for Clooney.