The Men who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant HeslovREVIEWED BY MARGARET AGNEW
Men Who Stare At Goats is deceptive.
If you check out the American aggregate review websites, you may be forgiven for thinking this is a mediocre movie at best, with a score on rottentomatoes.com of only 53 per cent, but perhaps it's too soon for citizens of the US of A to laugh about the Iraq War yet. There's been a rush of Iraq war movies lately, with Green Zone opening here last week and the long-awaited Oscar- winner The Hurt Locker opening April 1.
I thoroughly enjoyed the more satirical The Men Who Stare At Goats but I can see it may have limited appeal to the mainstream moviegoing audience. It reminded me of The Big Lebowski, which wasn't exactly a box-office smash when it opened and only gained cult status some years later. As well as an offbeat, dark sense of humour, the main things Goats and Lebowski have in common are Jeff Bridges and psychotropic drugs.
The Men Who Stare At Goats opens with the warning that more of this is true than you'd believe.
A small-town reporter (Ewan McGregor, former Jedi in the recent Star Wars trilogy) delves into the world of psychic military regiments during the Iraq War in this adaptation of the Jon Ronson book. Bob Wilton heads to Iraq in 2003 to escape his heartbreak, but might just have the story of a lifetime when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, former Iraq soldier in Three Kings), who claims to be a former member of the New Earth Army, a US Army unit dedicated to expanding and using their paranormal powers. They call themselves Jedi warriors, because the thinking about their psychic superpowers dates back to the early Star Wars days. It was then that the post-Vietnam US military, demoralised and financially strapped, was willing to try anything.
Truth is often funnier than fiction - apparently it's true that early in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Iraqi psychological warfare meant dropping leaflets to American soldiers that told them: "Your wives are back at home having sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds." (Less sophisticated than stopping a goat's heart with thought waves, perhaps.) The de-bleated goats used for psychic experiments and other US army- sanctioned weirdness are also based on fact.
Of course, it's not all titter-worthy material. The darker side of psychological warfare is also mentioned, although the use of Barney the Dinosaur songs to torture Abu Ghraib prisoners is amusing as well as horrifying (especially to parents of toddlers).
The psy-ops, as the non-traditional warriors are known, become the army version of new-age hippies, lead by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and threatened by jealous psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).
Script-writer Grant Heslov has gathered a star-studded cast - aside from Clooney, McGregor, Spacey and Bridges, there's also former Terminator Robert Patrick and Stephen Lang, fresh from playing Avatar's tough, bad-guy soldier - to make his impressive and slightly surreal, satirical debut.
Sure, some elements seem quirky merely for the sake of being quirky, but if you liked The Big Lebowski, give Goats a go.
- © Fairfax NZ News