Underseen Movie: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ – A Highly Unusual War Movie

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

“More of this is true than you would believe.”

You know something? It’s really nice to see a movie use a phrase other than “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” Those descriptions have all but lost their meaning because even if what we are seeing actually did happen, it has all been watered down into a formulaic feel-good movie we have seen over and over again to where we want to gag. Even worse, we keep getting suckered into seeing them even when we should know better. Either that, or there’s nothing better to watch. But this year has proven to be great as filmmakers have worked hard to subvert those worthless phrases with movies like “The Informant.” That Steven Soderbergh film made it very clear how it was based on actual events but that certain parts had been fictionalized, and it ended by saying:

“So there!”

Now we have “The Men Who Stare at Goats” which opens with the sentence at the top of this review. The story behind this one is so bizarre to where it’s almost impossible to believe any of what we are watching could ever have happened. All the same, it appears a good portion of these happenings did take place, and it makes for what is truly one of the more unique war movies I have seen in a while. The film is based on a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson which looked at how US military forces used psychic powers against their enemies. They look at New Age concepts as well as paranormal activities to achieve these goals, and of how they worked to use these methods to their advantage. The movie takes place during the Iraq war, but not to worry, the filmmakers is not trying to shove any politics down your throat (not consciously anyway).

Ronson serves as the inspiration for Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Bob’s wife has just left him for his editor and, of course, he is depressed and decides he needs to do something more important with his life in the hopes he can win her back. As a result, he travels to Kuwait to do firsthand reporting of the Iraq War, with hopes of finding someone who can get him across the border. Bob ends up having a chance meeting with a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who was in the military, but now runs a dance studio. Lyn reveals to Bob he was part of an American unit that was trained to be psychic spies or, as he eventually calls them, “Jedi warriors.” From there, Bob learns everything about this special unit which sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.

I love the irony of all the talk about “Jedi warriors” here, especially since McGregor played one in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Anyway, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is really a cross between a war movie and a road movie as Lyn and Bob traverse the sandy dunes of the Middle East to where not everything is as it appears. This film is also a mix of comedy and drama the same way “Three Kings,” another war movie which starred Clooney, was. While the tone is largely uneven, especially towards the end, this was definitely an inspired film which kept me entertained throughout and proved to be quite unpredictable.

McGregor is playing the main character here, but let’s face it, Clooney steals the show right out from under his feet. His performance as Lyn Cassady is truly one of his most surprising and inspired. Despite how ridiculous Lyn may seem, Clooney plays him straight and never appears to be self-conscious. Seeing Clooney trying to burst clouds with his mind, and trying to reach into his enemy’s mind by staring right at them has the actor going through emotions ranging from serious to funny to downright tragic. Having gone from playing dramatic roles in movies like “Syriana” to “Michael Clayton,” Clooney once again shows he is really good at comedy and never has to strive hard for a laugh.

I don’t want to take away from McGregor though, who pulls off a convincing American accent. In many ways, his role is more of a reactionary one as he is subjected to conditions one is never fully prepared for. Bob is bewildered at what Lyn is telling him, and yet he still wants to journey further and further into Lyn’s head. I also have to give McGregor a lot of credit because he could have made it look like he was consciously aware of all those “Star Wars” references, but he never did.

But one of the great delights is watching Jeff Bridges channel his inner-dude-ness from “The Big Lebowski” into his role of Bill Django, a military leader who, after being wounded in Vietnam, has a New Age vision of combat he wants to develop. This leads him to study concepts which he incorporates into a special unit called the New Earth Army. Bill becomes a teacher of using non-lethal techniques to gain advantage over the enemy, and his training techniques are unorthodox to say the least. Bridges plays the character broadly, but not too broadly. As funny as Bridges is, he infuses Django with a disappointment which threatens to render him useless to those around him, and with a deep sense of fear and tragedy as his techniques are misused or taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from them.

Having been in London doing tons of theater, it seemed like it would require a herculean effort to bring Kevin Spacey back to the big screen. Seeing him here is a kick as he plays the real antagonist of the film, Larry Hooper. Larry is basically the Darth Vader to Bill’s Obi Wan Kenobi and Lyn’s Luke Skywalker as he takes the non-lethal methods of the New Earth Army and ends up using them for more lethal purposes. Larry ends up doing this not so much out of greed as he does resentment since Django does not consider him in the same light as Lyn. His actions bring about the downfall of the New Earth Army, and he turns all these abilities they developed into something far more insidious. From there, you will see why the movie and the book it is based on has the title it does.

Spacey has great fun as he channels the inner smugness which has enveloped Larry over time. While his role is a little more serious than the others, he still has great moments of comedy which remind us of what a talented actor he is as he balances out the serious and comedic aspects of Larry without tilting too much in one direction.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” was directed by Grant Heslov, Clooney’s business partner on many films. He has his work cut out for him here as he must find a balance between the humorous and dramatic aspects of the story. Granted, Heslov doesn’t always succeed but he creates a most unusual war movie, and it is all the more entertaining as a result. Even more telling is the way he portrays the Iraqi people in certain scenes. They are not shown as gun toting terrorists, and he captures the look of their helplessness in having to deal with a military occupation they did not ask for.

Like I said, there’s no serious politicizing of the Iraq war in this movie, so don’t feel like you are walking into some sort of trap. Like “The Hurt Locker,” it merely focuses on what those Americans in Iraq were doing in the midst of the chaos, albeit in a more comical way. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seems almost far too bizarre to be real, but a part of you just might want it to be real. One thing’s for sure, you will never look at “Barney and Friends” in the same way ever again, assuming you ever watched it in the first place (c’mon! Don’t deny it!).

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Duncan Jones Revisits ‘Moon’ at New Beverly Cinema

Moon movie poster

Filmmaker Duncan Jones was the guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on November 19, 2011 where his first two movies “Moon” and “Source Code” were being shown. Right after “Moon” finished, he leapt up to the stage like a contestant on “The Price Is Right” for a Q&A alongside his “Moon” producer Stuart Fenegan. Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey were not in attendance, but Jones brought along Rockwell’s spacesuit and a balloon of Gerty’s face as their stand ins.

Jones explained how he had worked in the advertising industry for years with the goal of eventually working in movies. He originally wanted his first film to be “Mute” which takes place in a futuristic Berlin, but he and Fenegan came to the conclusion it was too big for them to make into a movie at that point. It’s amazing to learn “Moon” only cost $5 million to make, and Jones said he was determined to squeeze as much out of that amount as possible. Fenegan was quick to point out what was at stake and said, “With the first movie, commercial success is far more important than critical success as it determines whether you’ll make another.”

There were two distinctive sets Jones had to work with on “Moon;” a 360-degree space station set which everyone got stuck in for the day once it was sealed, and another for the lunar module which Rockwell’s character uses to travel outside. As for Gerty, the “2001” Hal-like character voiced by Spacey, Jones described it as a beautiful model which could be moved around the set, but that it was a CGI effect in the wide shots. The special effects ended up getting a polish from Cinesite, a digital visual effects and post-production facility in London.

One audience member asked if Rockwell’s character was named Sam on purpose, to which Jones said yes. “Moon” was made with Rockwell in mind for the lead, and since he plays different clones of the same person, Jones really wanted to mess with his head during the 33-day shoot. This way, Jones said, the actor would be constantly reminded of the movie’s thematic elements. While this made Rockwell uncomfortable at times, Jones described him as a good sport overall.

In terms of influences, Jones said “Moon” was inspired by many science fiction movies he watched in the 60’s and 70’s. Specifically, he cited Bruce Dern in “Silent Running,” Sean Connery in “Outland,” and the first chunk of “Alien” as the biggest influences on the movie’s story. The characters in these films came from a working class or blue collar environment, and the portrayal of it in an outer space setting made everything seem more real and relatable. As for must see movie recommendations, Jones replied “Blade Runner” is the be all and end all of science fiction. You could follow any character in Ridley Scott’s film, he said, and you would still have an amazing movie.

When asked of his future plans, Jones said that he has finished polishing his latest script and will be sending it to the one person he wants to star in it (he wouldn’t say who). It is another science fiction movie, but the director is eager to move beyond this particular genre. With “Moon” now being considered as one of the best science fiction movies of the past few years though, I’m sure his fans will be begging him to revisit the genre more often than not.