Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

"If Looks Could Kill"

An odd choice for Veteran's Day, but timing is... everything.

Despite an opening graphic that cautions "More of this is true than you might believe" "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is more of a fantasia based on the reporting of
Jon Ronson than an actual true story. Yes, the truth is in the details; during the 1980's there was an army troop training as psychic warriors tasked with perfecting ways of defeating the enemy beyond fighting. These included perfectly legitimate examples of psychological disciplines, like moving past one's fears and one's predilections (it's pointed out that 15 to 20% of "fresh" soldiers usually shot above the heads of enemy combatants—not wanting to kill anybody), heightening one's powers of observation, gaining a psychological advantage over one's adversary by one's actions and thoughts, and moved beyond that into training that was anything but basic.

Ultimately the goal of the so-called "
First Earth Battalion" was to make "super-soldiers," "psychic warriors," or "Jedi knights"* who could intuit answers from prisoners, psychically deflect attacks, become invisible, "phase" through objects, and, most diabolically, stop the hearts of their opponents by staring at them.

In the movie,
McGregor's Ronson stand-in, Bob Wilton, gets wind of a "New Earth Army" doing some feature work for his local newspaper, but it isn't until he's in Iraq—trying to impress his estranged wife—that "the circle becomes complete" and he meets the closest thing to an adept among the psy-warriors, Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney, looking remarkably like Dennis Farina) who's "been re-activated" on a secret mission to find his former commanding officer and creator of the First Earth Army, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, who perfects his Leibowskish "bubble-off-plumb" hippie personification and manages to make it poignant). Cassidy appears to be legit, capable of cloud bursting and the one Earher who could drop a goat with a look. He's less than expert in the "sparkley eyes" technique, despite being played by George Clooney (who manages to play it completely straight while pulling off some of the strangest actions of his career).

Grant Heslov, Clooney's production partner and script-writer for "Good Night, and Good Luck," keeps things moving at a good clip, moving fast enough to avoid analysis or deep thinking. The story is slight, owing much to, of all things, "Ishtar" (two clueless guys, out of their depth in a Middle East war-zone) while waving an anti-establishment freak-flag that reeks of "M*A*S*H" (with Kevin Spacey as Frank Burns). The story, of remnants of the original NEA operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems plausible (given the way those wars have been run), but the story merely exploits true concepts to spin the gauziest of screenplays from, while poking fun at the "Be All That You Can Be" gozo-ness of an Army that's trying "to be wonderful."

Semi-satirical movies are rarely more than semi-amusing. "
The Men Who Stare at Goats," however, delivers quite a few belly-laughs.

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a Matinee.

* The movie earns many—too many—knowing audience laughs by casting Ewan McGregor (the post/pre-Guiness Obi-Wan Kenobi) as the Ronson-surrogate reporter who is more of a "Doubting Thomas" than a "Padewan Apprentice." It's a little too "on the nose" and is, frankly, done to death, like some of the more winkingly obvious in-jokes in the "Ocean's Eleven" series.

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