Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Theaters: The Men Who Stare At Goats

Men Who Stare At Goats poster and IMPAwards link
The disclaimer for THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS reads “More of this is true than you would believe”, or something to that effect. It’s based on a nonfiction book, has had a fictional storyline imposed on it, but the core concept is real; for many, many years, the U.S. military devoted resources to developing a corps of psychic superpowered soldiers, or, as they were frequently called, “Jedi warriors.” (One of the benefits of being a classified operation is that you presumably don’t have to worry about trademark issues.) The natural reaction to learning this sort of thing is a combination of disbelief, amusement, and frustration at the waste of tax dollars, but this film takes a cooler-headed approach. Skeptics need not worry, as the film doesn’t really try to convince us that any or all of the mystic mumbo-jumbo being taught to the soldiers is at all valid, but it doesn’t condemn the idea altogether. The overall attitude is that it’s a funny old world, and the result is a pleasant groove of a picture, not quite living up to the premise’s full potential, but still throwing some surprises at us.

Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) is a journalist at the end of his rope, recently separated from his wife and trying to change things around by heading to Iraq in the early stages of the second Gulf War. He can’t actually get in the country until he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of the “New Earth Army” project, which, under the supervision of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), taught, or attempted to teach, various psychic and supernatural abilities to its select group of volunteers through a combination of drugs, dubious training exercises, and a decidedly non-Army-esque peace and love attitude. The New Earth Army was an almost utopian concept, meant to produce warriors who could convert enemies and spread peace, but it never quite worked out that way, and Cassady is a burnout, driven into the Iraqi desert by a mission that gets him and Wilton into some serious trouble.

The film is not as much of an outright comedy as the advertising has made it seem, though it rarely gets very serious. Instead the overall tone is of a funky, slightly mad adventure, one that may be based on pure New Age hokum but still worth following. The film doesn’t really commit to skepticism or credulity when it comes to the New Earth Army program- we only see the powers “working” either in ways that could just be normal human ability dressed up with the supernatural, or with the occasional special effect that may be pure fantasy on a character’s part. Like all pseudoscience, Lyn’s powers are unreliable and indistinguishable from luck, but the film never outright says that he’s lying or delusional.

It’s hard to believe the story Lyn has, but at the same time one wants to believe it. Django’s vision is born of a belief in the essential goodness of human nature; he apparently first stumbled on it when he noticed how rarely soldiers in a battle shoot to kill, and became convinced that a solider could become an agent of something better than war. But of course, at the same time, they still learn advanced knife combat and assorted ways of killing people. Bullshit or not, there’s still something corrupt in it, something that has to go wrong.

Clooney and MacGregor make a nice team- the former possessing a loopy certainty, while the latter seems desperate to believe in something. Of course, the fact that MacGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi provides the opportunity for a number of riffs on the “Jedi Warrior” bit, which goes beyond in-joking and starts pushing at the fourth wall. (Similarly, Bridges’ character has a touch of the Dude to him, though in fairness that’s probably most of the parts he gets offered.)

The film takes a dismaying turn for the conventional in its third act; it feels like something contrived to try and give the story a climax, and a sort of traditional feel-good one at that. It’s not actually boring or bad, but it has a certain Donald-Kaufman-esque feel- it all gets tied up too neatly, when the rest of the film’s appeal is in how funky it is.

Still, it’s a hard movie not to like. It doesn’t lean too heavily on any interpretation of the events it portrays, and has an empathy for its characters that suggests that, even if all the “New Earth” business is a fraud, it’s a useful fraud, perhaps discarded too quickly. Maybe we need the belief that we can become better humans, and the film suggests that a certain New Age idealism may be a necessary tonic for our times.

Plus, it makes extensive use of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”, which is worth a few points right there.

Based on the book by Jon Ronson
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
DIrected by Grant Heslov

Grade: B

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