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 * * * *

‘Young Adult’ Deals With a Serious Case of Arrested Development

Young Adult movie poster

Young Adult” comes to us from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who gave us “Juno,” but this is a very different movie. This collaboration of theirs is a bruise-black comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels which resemble those “Sweet Valley High” books many read years ago (I did not). She finds out her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has become a dad, and she travels back to her hometown in a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife and rekindle their long-lost romance.

Both Reitman and Cody dare us to share some time with a most unlikable character. Mavis is a recent divorcee who spends her mornings chugging down Diet Coke, her nights getting drunk on premium whiskey (Maker’s Mark should see an increase in sales from this movie), and she can barely hide her contempt for the town she grew up in. That she writes young adult books is a metaphor for her arrested development as her best years were in high school, and she has never gotten past them.

Theron is one of the best actresses working in movies right now, and her performance as Mavis Gary is one of her bravest. This is not a likable character, but Theron finds the humanity within Mavis, and this makes us want to follow her journey. While we despise Mavis’ desperation in reclaiming a past which has long since passed her by, Theron digs deep into the pain and depression which has long since engulfed this character, and she succeeds in making “Young Adult” more unforgettable than it already is.

But as great as Theron is, she is almost outdone by comedian Patton Oswalt who plays Mavis’ former classmate, Matt Freehauf. His character got beaten up very badly in high school, and his injuries have kept him from moving forward in life. Oswalt inhabits his character fully and never allows Matt to turn into a caricature. His sense of humor acts as a defense against the hurt he can quickly be reminded of, and he too finds the humanity in a character who could have easily turned into a cliché.

Cody’s script is excellent in mining the humor out of incredibly awkward and pitiful situations. This is a cathartic story which perfectly captures the dynamic between those who have moved on from high school and those who have not. This feels like a very personal script for her as it ponders those formative years which define us more than we want them to. While we would love to see those popular kids suffer tremendously, we can’t get past the sadness of Mavis’ current situation.

Reitman bravely moves out of his safety zone with this movie. As with his other movies, he succeeds in making all the characters seem as real as those we know in real life. While the beginning may seem slow and unnecessarily cold, he brilliantly highlights the sad state of Mavis’ life as much of it has been stolen from her.

Whether or not you think “Young Adult” reaches out to all those who loved “Juno,” it does show off the tremendous talents of Reitman and Cody. What results is a movie which dares to go down roads we would rather not revisit, and it finds a humor and humanity many will not see coming. Some will strongly dislike this movie as its main character is far from likable, but you don’t need likable characters to make a good movie, let alone a great one.

* * * * out of * * * *