Movie Review – The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
by NIR SHALEV
Based on the book by Ron Jonson, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comedic romp about psychic soldiers, or Jedi warriors as they like to be called, who were recruited by the American military after Vietnam and taught how to fight armed only with their minds. Sounds crazy? Well, its craziness only makes the story more realistic.
Narrator and protagonist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is an investigative reporter who’s just had his heart broken by his wife, who left him for his editor. Devastated, he journeys to the Middle East, where he hopes to clear his mind by finding a good story in the Iraq War. Kicking his heels in Kuwait while waiting for permission to cross the border into Iraq, he meets a strange man named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Lyn explains to Bob that he used to be one of the best psychic soldiers trained by one Lt. Colonel Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). He explains that during a tour in Vietnam, Django noticed that 70%, or more, of new recruits would aim their rifles high and deliberately miss their targets because they didn’t want to kill anyone and were scared by the death around them. From this Django got the brilliant idea of using those soldiers’ love for humanity as a weapon and ultimately had turned a group of them into dangerous hippies. Cassady was his star pupil, although he eventually had competition in the psychic unit from Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).
The back story in the film is told in extended flashbacks that run parallel to the main story that showcases Cassady and Wilton searching for meaning to everything, including the universe. Cassady is on an unknown mission that will make itself known on its own schedule and Wilton is simply determined to follow him in order to write a great piece. The funny thing is that Wilton eventually believes in Cassady and his stories more and more as time goes by.
Bridges is seen mostly in flashback, appearing on and off through the entirety of the film, but manages to refresh and reinvent his character of The Dude from The Big Lebowski wonderfully. Clooney is the showstopper as the dangerous and hilarious Cassady, who may or may not be crazy. McGregor simply earns his paycheck but is obviously having fun in the process, and Spacey is hilarious as Cassady’s menacing antagonist.
A movie like this is only as good as its material and its actors. Here, the actors are great in portraying their oddball characters and the screenplay is also good, but I can see exactly why the film would be very hit and miss with the majority of moviegoers. Most viewers do not know that when McGregor’s character claims that what his character undergoes and see is true, it is in fact true. The book is based on actual people, but this film plays like M.A.S.H.: hilarious but completely fictitious.
Having watched a documentary called “Crazy Rulers of the World: The Men Who Stare at Goats” just before watching this film I was astonished to find so many of the real characters featured in the Hollywood film. Django actually existed, although the name is changed, and so did Cassady and Hooper. The anecdote of the person who had killed a hamster with his mind by staring at it for hours is in this film as well as the fact of Cassady’s character owning a dance school as does the person he’s based on.
As a comedic romp, this film fails because it’s too farfetched and takes itself relatively seriously, but it also succeeds if one knows beforehand that it’s all true. Whether or not the First Earth Battalion (Django’s army) was a success and whether or not their tricks worked is immaterial since we know that the people are real and so are the situations. Then again, the documentary could easily be a mockumentary and so we there have a very complex joke that works on too many levels to be able to keep up with.
I like this film for what it is. It’s funny, it’s well shot, and the performances are good. I know the source material to contain crazy individuals and seeing their personifications on the big screen is entertaining. This is not a movie for everyone, but shoddy marketing has also kept it from finding its audience. It should have been pressed harder so people would know that the characters in it are based on real people. Audiences should just sit back and enjoy the show. I did and I enjoyed it immensely.