The Men Who Stare At Goats Review: MAAA-gical
A forthright mass mobilising army, founded on secret experiments that test the boundaries of mental endurance, with death stares capable of neutralising wild, retarded animals at 10 paces.
At first glance, that’s one of two things.
The reality however, is far more interesting if no less terrifying.
Adapted from the 2004 book of the same name, director Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare At Goats is a hilarious, warmly critical look at the US army’s own psychic cold war with the USSR.
Whatever your opinions on the US army, it’s fair to say they’ve made some occasionally baffling decisions in recent years. Yet if we’re to believe the disclaimer at the film’s opening (‘most of this is more true than you’d believe’), trust us, ‘gay bombs’, bad breath attacks and the ‘Who, Me?’ farting bomb are just the tip of the loopy iceberg.
Jon Ronson’s original journalistic expose into the secretive ‘alternative’ war tactics employed by the USA has been tweaked and embellished to sustain a 90 minute, character-led narrative, but ultimately it’s essentially unchanged. Bob Wilton (the affable, suitably bewildered everyman played by Ewan McGregor) flees to Iraq after his wife leaves him, determined to prove a point to both his ex and his boss (who’s now dating his ex). The point in question, however, has gone more than a little AWOL.
With no direction and no real purpose, the arrival of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, cementing his comedic chops) and his almost miraculous link back to a flippant news story back home sends Wilton on a journey of self discovery that simultaneously uncovers one of the weirdest military plans known to date.
Cassady claims he is a real-life Jedi Warrior (cue self-knowing McGregor nod); a special forces operative trained in the art of invisibility, death-stares (practiced on the titular goats) and persuasive, sparkly-eyed mind control. Delusional hippy or the greatest scoop Milton will ever get?
Either way, the journey for both viewer and Milton alike is sweetly, embracingly zen-like. While Cassady could quite easily come across as yet another post-war vet, rattled into craziness by the crushing realities of war, Clooney imbues him with a subtle pathos that makes him far less pathetic and far more admirable than you’d expect. Equally, Jeff Bridges almost manages to steal the show as The Big Lewbowski, Dude-esque Bill Django, the leader and spiritual progressionist of the Jedis who considers ‘hugging it out’ to be as effective an attacking technique as a volley of bullets.
Through LSD-spiking, terrorist abductions and some very entertaining attempts at Jedi manipulation, the trio win over the audience (and ultimately, each other) with their pacifist (the goat deaths aside) approach to modern warfare, satirising the incompetence and ludicrousness of the thought and backing behind the majority of modern warfare.
While the ending may veer just a little too much towards saccharine, ‘moral of the week’ storytelling, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a quirky, life-affirming take on the traditional war movie and almost justifies the craziness that inspired it.