- Uncut film review:The Men Who Stare at Goats
- Directed by: Grant Heslov
- Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey
If the Coen brothers ever decided to remake The Manchurian Candidate, it might look a little like this. Very loosely based on the Guardian journalist Jon Ronson’s non-fiction history of US military experiments in psychic warfare, Grant Heslov’s breezy black comedy features a first division cast and fantastically rich subject matter. And yet, frustratingly, it somehow misses the bullseye.
Ewan McGregor plays a small-town Michigan reporter who responds to marital breakdown at home with a desperate, seize-the-day mission into war-torn Iraq. Along the way he meets George Clooney’s mentally fragile contractor, who claims he was once a real-life Jedi with a secret New Age wing of the US Army. Based on a real field manual written by former Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon but never actually adopted by the military, the First Earth Battalion were intended to be “warrior monks” trained in remote viewing, meditation and non-lethal warfare.
As this ill-prepared duo blunder onwards into the Iraqi desert, surviving kidnap gangs and roadside bombs, we see in flashback how Clooney’s unit of long-haired hippie warriors was founded by a Vietnam veteran turned acid-fried guru, played by Jeff Bridges in his most Dude-like performance since The Big Lebowski. But his idealistic efforts to cure war with peace are undermined by a Machiavellian rival – Kevin Spacey in panto villain mode – who has more overtly hostile applications in mind for his former mentor’s spiritual combat techniques.
The film opens with the slippery claim that more of this crackpot story is true than we would believe. Indeed, Ronson’s book delved into some bizarre fringe areas of CIA and US military activity, from the brainwashing and LSD experiments of the Vietnam era to the disorienting mental torture methods of today. Ronson concludes that some of these techniques later emerged in more sinister form during the War on Terror.
Great stuff, and clearly ripe for satire in the tradition of Doctor Strangelove or Catch-22. And yet Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan keep the tone relentlessly light and whimsical, never dwelling too long on the big and troubling ideas just out of frame. Consequently nothing ever really seems to be at stake in this cartoon theatre of war. Even the film’s would-be shocking final revelation, with its echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, lacks bite or substance.
George Clooney has visited similar cinematic terrain before, of course, in the superior Three Kings and Syriana. Here he remains in Coens-lite mode, eyes rolling as he babbles classic New Age psycho-bollocks with a mostly straight face. McGregor has never been a charismatic lead, but he acquits himself fine in the bland narrator role. And Bridges is great, naturally, stealing his few scenes with twinkly mischief and a shit-eating stoner grin. The Dude abides.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is an amusing little farce inspired by some genuinely hair-raising true stories. But it loses its nerve in its second half as the need to impose conventional narrative closure eclipses the wacko subject matter. Fun, but forgettable. Burn after viewing.