Ewan McGregor stars with Academy Award winners George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges in The Men Who Stares at Goats. It’s a film about the current war in Iraq that tries to mix the sort wartime black comedy that worked so effectively in M*A*S*H and Clooney’s previous Iraq film, Three Kings. Unfortunately, despite excellent production value and noble efforts by all of the main and supporting cast, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a disappointment.
McGregor is Bob Wilton, a recently divorced reporter from Ann Arbor, Michigan who wants to make his mark in the world of journalism. The most interesting piece he’s written is about a man named Gus, who claims to have been a military psychic warrior. Gus (played by veteran character actor, Stephen Root) seems to have a couple screws loose. Soon after Bob’s wife leaves him and he decides that going to Iraq to cover the war is what he needs; it’s his purpose.
Bob finds himself in Kuwait, desperate to cross the border and get in the shit. Unfortunately he doesn’t have any contacts to get him over there. A chance encounter in a hotel bar changes his life. Bob meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a name he recognizes from his interview with Gus. Lyn is kind of squirrely, as if he’s taken one two many hits to the head, or perhaps one two many hits of acid. Bob manages to get Lyn to open up about his history with a top secret Army unit training to be psychic spies; ”Jedi Warriors.”
The leader of this unit, the New Earth Army, was Bill Django (Bridges), a Vietnam Veteran who traveled the country in the 1970’s visiting a variety of New Age movements. It was Django’s thinking that there had to be a better way of fighting wars, a way that didn’t involve weapons of mass destruction. He spent years traveling to communes and ”finding himself” and he came up with the idea for psychic spies: men who could walk through walls, move objects with their minds, see the future, and stare at goats until their hearts stop.
Somehow, Django convinced the Army to fund his project and he recruited a group of soldiers who danced and chanted and took plenty of LSD. One of those men was Lyn. Another man was Larry Hooper (Spacey), a man jealous of Django’s power and a man who saw the benefits of using psychic abilities for darker reasons. Eventually, Hooper mechanizes Django’s downfall and the guru of the Arm disappeared.
All of this vital back-story is interspersed throughout the film. It’s interesting information, however it comes at the most inopportune moments, interrupting the flow of the story. Coupled with McGregor’s continuous voice over and The Men Who Stare at Goats feels like one long first act of a movie that leads into the third act.
In real time, Lyn takes Bob into Iraq on a secret mission. As soon as they cross the border, the two men become a sort of 21st Century Hope and Crosby, on the road to Iraq. They get held at gunpoint by an angry criminal gang, crash their car, get rescued, hi-jacked by a private security firm and wind up in the middle of plenty of gunfire.
As I said earlier, almost everything about The Men Who Stare at Goats is top notch. All four actors bring their best comedic timing to the table. McGregor is wide eyed and amazed, similar to what he did in Moulin Rouge, Clooney has that wild eyed stare he did so well in O Brother, Where Art Thou! Bridges appears to be channeling the dude once again, and Spacey is perfect as the oily and sneaky Hooper. The cinematography is outstanding, the editing flows seamlessly between the present and the past, the music is spot on, and the direction by Grant Heslov is excellent. Thus, it’s a great surprise and an even greater disappointment that the film just doesn’t click. Even with all of these elements in place, the narrative of the film and the story itself just don’t come off as very interesting. Worse, there are moments when the movie is just flat and boring.
I suppose that the fault lies in the screenplay and the overuse of voiceovers and flashbacks. By cutting away from the main storyline too many times, the film suffers and never feels in sync. Whether this was a decision on the part of Heslov, or it was in the shooting script, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Men Who Stare at Goats is one film that I watched once and will not be watching again.
The DVD features are very limited. The highlight of the bonuses is a behind the scenes featurette that included interviews with the cast and the crew. The various trailers for the film (which make the movie appear a lot funnier than it is) round out the special features.