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Film review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

November 22, 2009

WITH GEORGE Clooney in restrained, but mouschio-ed, mad mode and Jeff Bridges in hippy dippy, flower child mode – you would be excused for thinking that the Grant Heslov-helmed The Men who Stared at Goats is the anti-war movie the Coen Brothers have never made.
But that would be unfair to a brilliant wee movie which offers tonnes of laughs without being the satiric master class it sets out to be. It certainly has none of the anarchic mentalism of the best of the Coens as well as stopping short of the classic anti-war texts of Catch 22 and M*A*S*H.
But, based on the uproarious 2004 Jon Ronson book of the same name, it fictionalises the US Army’s actual madcap investigations into new age and paranormal activities, now fictionally placing them within the context of the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Crucially it keeps most of the screwiness of Ronson’s text.
In the 1970s, the army believes that the Russians have been developing the psychic powers of their operatives and so the Yanks try to do the same themselves thanks to the general who believes he can jump through walls if he concentrates hard enough. Clooney’s character (Len Cassady) comes to prominence when he ‘actually’ psychically finds an Italian kidnap hostage and goes on to stop a goat’s heart just by staring at it. (He probably didn’t really do.)
Ewan McGregor (who seems mostly to have been cast for a long running Star Wars-derived gag) plays mid-Western newspaper reporter Bob Wilton who stumbles upon this story of the Psy-ops organisation during the break-up of his marriage and travels to Iraq to rejuvenate his career. (Having said that, his accent is only authentically mid-Western if we consider the American mid-West to lie somewhere in an area which centres on the Scottish towns of Crieff, Dunblane and Perth).
Clearly, this is another of those ideologically driven projects Clooney takes on, normally with Steven Soderbergh, which sit outside of his main gig of being mega bucks, big box office/ coffee endorsing gold.
TMWSAG takes apart the ridiculousness of the free-market approach to the war in Iraq, as Clooney and McGregor stumble into Iraq during the invasion. We find out that the latter, a former member of the top secret paranormal unit of the US Army, is being ‘guided’ there psychically thanks to a dream, to find Bridges’ character – his former commanding officer.
At this juncture, two rival US security firms shoot one another up in Ramadi and the Robert Altman-style satire is a little heavy handed, but that is unfair of a movie which makes a bigger point.
Through a series of voice overs and flash backs we get a picture of the new age, paranormalist unit which we know actually existed thanks to Ronson’s excellent book. The ludicrousness of the Cold War ideology drove some US generals to believe in the nonsense of paranormal powers. In this ludicrous premise, this movie says, lies the ridiculousness of believing in those who believe they can sort out Iraq. If they believe in killing goats mentally – how can we trust their strategy in the theatre of war.
Despite there being a tonne of people on screen, this is essentially a tight ensemble cast. Kevin Spacey puts in his usual brilliant mad turn as Clooney’s nemesis, Bridges could have phoned his part in, but doesn’t and is as endearing as always. McGregor, accent aside, is convincing as a man cast adrift from the earlier realities of his life and willing to subject himself to the inherent madness in Iraq as a result.
But, ultimately, this is Clooney’s film. He is absolutely mesmerising. Every twitch, every eyebrow raise is hugely watchable. It’s worth £6.95 of anyone’s money of a rainy Saturday evening.
And here’s the point of this, frankly,  terrible review: we need actors of commitment like Clooney – a man who can make one for the studio and one for himself when the latter movie is trying to make a serious point.
Clooney has an admirable left of centre political heart which seeks out movies which he knows play against his type and which make a stronger point because of it. In this respect, in committing to a bi-polar career, Clooney becomes something even more important: an actor with a heart, a conscience and a mesmerising presence which decorates anything he is in with a veneer of quality.
Name one other actor who does that from blockbuster to art house?
TMWSAG may not be is not satiric enough to be M*A*S*H or Catch 22 and may not be funny enough to be a Coen’s screwball classic, but at least Clooney continues to be willing to put his head above the parapet to do interesting projects which wouldn’t normally get made.

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