George Clooney is one of those versatile actors that can easily go back and forth between big budget studio films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and smaller, more personal independent films like Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). One gets the feeling that given his preference, he’d much rather make the latter than the former but he’s smart enough to know that doing the occasional studio film gives him the opportunity to make smaller films. One glance at the cast list for The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) and you would assume that it was a studio film with the likes of Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey involved. It’s the offbeat premise, however, that could only come from an indie film.
Inspired by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows the misadventures of Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), an investigative journalist in search of a major story to cover. He stumbles across a secretive wing of the United States military called The New Earth Army, created to develop psychic powers in soldiers. These include reading the enemy’s thoughts, passing through walls, and yes, killing a goat by staring at it. While doing a story about a man (Stephen Root) who stopped the heart of his pet hamster with his mind for a local newspaper in Ann Arbor, Wilton finds out that this man used to be part of a top secret military unit of psychic spies in the 1980s. At least, that’s what he claims.
Understandably skeptic about the man’s abilities, Wilton learns about the former leader of the unit, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), “the most gifted psi-guy” who now runs a dance studio. After a co-worker dies suddenly and his wife leaves him for his editor, Wilton interprets these incidents to be a wake-up call and travels to the Middle East to cover the war. By chance (or is it?), while staying at a hotel in Kuwait, he runs into Cassady. This self-proclaimed Jedi Warrior (?!) tells Wilton about Project Jedi, a hush-hush assignment that cultivated Super Soldiers with super powers. Cassady’s technique for tapping into these powers involves drinking alcohol and listening to the music of classic rock band Boston.
Wilton learns all about this elite unit that combines “the courage and nobility of the Warrior” with “the spirituality of the Monk,” and follows in the footsteps of “the great Imagineers of the past”: Jesus Christ, Lao Tse Tung and Walt Disney. Wilton convinces Cassady to allow him to tag along during his mission in Iraq and the rest of the film plays out as a quirky road movie cum satire of war films.
George Clooney is quite good as the clearly bat-shit crazy Cassady. The actor plays the role seriously but you can see that insane glint in his eyes. It’s impressive how he is able to say some of his character’s ridiculous dialogue with a straight face. Clooney gets maximum laughs by playing it straight and is also not afraid to act silly when the situation calls for it. And it does in one of the film’s funniest set pieces during a flashback where Cassady’s New Age commanding officer (Jeff Bridges) loosens up the unit by having them spontaneously dance to “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol. It’s pretty funny seeing a bunch of uniformed soldiers, Clooney included, dancing their asses off.
Clooney is surrounded by a very impressive supporting cast. Jeff Bridges plays a peace-loving high ranking soldier, sort of the Dude if he had been drafted instead of dropping out of society. Kevin Spacey is the black sheep of the unit and jealous of Clooney’s powers. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor is the naive reporter and audience surrogate. They all get their moments to show their stuff but the film really belongs to Clooney and his seriously wacky character.
After making serious political films like Syriana (2005) and Good Night, and Good Luck, it’s nice to see Clooney starring in a political satire that is funny but still has something to say as it shows the absurdity of the war in Iraq. This is evident in a scene where Cassady and Wilton narrowly escape a firefight between two competing security firms. The Men Who Stare at Goats falls under the truth is stranger than fiction category as it presents a story populated by eccentric characters and tall tales, some of which might be true. Regardless, it is an entertaining film with a wonderfully oddball sense of humour in the same vein as other memorable war satires like M*A*S*H (1970), Catch 22 (1970) and Three Kings (1999). Don’t be put off by the setting. Although it takes place in Iraq, The Men Who Stare at Goats is not weighed down by the baggage of this war.
There is an audio commentary by the film’s director Grant Heslov. He points out certain characters that are composites but is quick to explain that what they say comes from Jon Ronson’s book. He sometimes spends too much time telling us where certain scenes were shot which gets tiresome pretty fast. Heslov’s focus is mostly on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking but done in a fairly dry and uninteresting way.
Also included is a commentary by the book’s author Jon Ronson. He points out the scenes that are based on real incidents and talks about meeting the actual people that the characters are based on. He also explains who the composite characters are and tells all sorts of fascinating anecdotes. If you want to learn more the people and events behind the ones depicted in the film, this is worth a listen if only to find out how much is taken from his book and experiences.
“Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion” features some of the actual military personnel depicted The Men Who Stare at Goats. They talk about some of their intentions. We also learn about how this top secret unit’s techniques were brought to light. It’s great to hear from the actual people as they tell their fascinating stories.
“Project ‘Hollywood’: A Classified Report from the Set” takes a brief look at the origins of the film and how it got made. Several of the lead actors talk about their characters and there’s footage of them having fun on location.
“Character Bios” is a collection of trailer for the film emphasizing several key characters.
Also included is four minutes of deleted scenes. There is more flashback footage some of which should’ve stayed in as it’s quite funny.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.