Loosely adapted from Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book about bizarre US military practices, The Men Who Stare at Goats mostly hits the spot as a satire.
For anyone who hasn’t read Ronson’s book, the title comes from a secret Army unit founded in 1979 called the ‘First Earth Battalion’ who conducted paranormal experiments which included staring at goats in order to kill them.
Why was US taxpayer money being used in this way? After the trauma of Vietnam and Cold War paranoia still in the air, it seems that the military brass were willing to allow a unit to pursue paranormal experiments and all kinds of New Age ideas.
With names changed and details tweaked, the film uses a fictional framing narrative of an Ann Arbor journalist (Ewan McGregor) who hears about these strange practices and when he goes to cover the Iraq war in 2003 he encounters a former member of the unit (George Clooney) who provides him with more stories.
In flashback we learn the history of the unit created under Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) at Fort Bragg which trained soldiers to be ‘Jedi Warriors’ with special powers. (Note the irony of McGregor not playing a ‘Jedi’ here despite the fact that he played the most famous Jedi of all in the Star Wars prequels).
Amongst these are Lynn Cassady (Clooney), Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). As McGregor’s journalist slowly uncovers their history he begins to see how their methods connect to George W Bush‘s war on terror.
Fans of the book should be prepared for something a little different from the film but credit should go screenwriter Peter Straughan who has done a clever job in incorporating the details into a narrative framework and weaving many of the best details into certain scenes. There is quite a lot of voiceover from McGregor, but the fact that he’s a journalist helps soften what can sometimes be a clunky storytelling device.
The tone here is somewhat similar to the dry, knowing slapstick of the Coen Brothers (such as Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski) and director Grant Heslov manages to mine the source material for plenty of laughs.
The theme of the film seems to be how the US military will embrace any idea – no matter how whacky – in the pursuit of its goals and how the insanity of Cold War simply fermented such thinking. As the film reminds us, Ronald Regan was a big fan of Star Wars (one of his missile programmes was nicknamed after it) and even had a wife who believed in astrological readings.
The logic in creating a unit of ‘Jedi warriors’ during the Cold War seemed to come out of paranoia that they had to do it before the Russians did – even if was crazy.
But much of the satire comes from the inherent absurdity of war itself, which is why the training camp sections and modern day sequences in Iraq dovetail more neatly than you think. Lest we forget, US troops blasted Iraqi prisoners-of-war with the theme tune to Barney the Purple Dinosaur and played Eminem to detainees at Gauantanamo Bay.
Heslov and Straughn seem to be channelling the spirit of such films as Dr Strangelove, Three Kings and Catch 22 for the War on Terror generation. The cast is uniformly good with the standout performance coming from Clooney (who is perfectly deadpan throughout), although why directors seem hell-bent on casting McGregor as an American is a mystery given his wonky US accent.
However, the chemistry between Clooney and McGregor works well in their extended sequences together and the film is consistently funny, if not flat out hilarious or possessing the political savvy of the films that inspired it. Impressively, the events of the book are compressed neatly into a highly watchable 93 minutes, with precious little fat or waste.
On the tech side, the visuals look impressive for a mid-budget movie, whilst special praise must go to cinematographer Robert Elswit (one of the best currently working in Hollywood) who shoots some of the locations superbly with New Mexico doubling for Iraq and Puerto Rico standing in for Vietnam and other places.
Quite how this will do at the box office remains an open question. Despite being very accessible and featuring a stellar cast, the fact that it is effectively an indie (made by Overture Films and BBC Films) might mean it lacks the marketing power of bigger funded studio rivals.
The surreal nature of the story might baffle people – as an opening title says: “More of this is true than you would believe” – which leaves the question as to how much you do actually believe. That said, I can see it playing well with audiences and UK distributor Momentum Pictures can expect it to do well if enough buzz is created.
The Men Who Stare at Goats screened tonight at the LFF and goes on general release in the UK on November 6