The Men Who Stare At Goats ****
If you’ve seen the trailer for The Men Who Stare At Goats you will likely have noticed that it is allegedly “inspired by the top secret true story”, “a story so unbelievable is has to be true”. Given the crazy sounding concept for the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a load of nonsense concocted by the film’s distributor, but amazingly these allegations are actually true, at least in part. Based on the 2004 book of the same name by journalist Jon Ronson, the story draws its inspirations from Ronson’s investigations into a division of the US government that was exploring New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal, notably psychic abilities. Of course, with a title as bizarre sounding as The Men Who Stare At Goats (the title referring to attempts to kill goats by staring at them) you would expect a film that shouldn’t be taken too seriously and this is most definitely what we are getting. Obviously, the real life inspirations would have been quite serious but given the ludicrous sounding nature of the concept, humour was probably really the only way to go with regard to telling the story. The only question is does the film deserve a place among the ranks of great satirical films or will you finding yourself wishing you really were just staring at goats?
Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is looking for a big story when he encounters Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a shadowy figure who claims to be part of an experimental US military unit. According to Cassady, the New Earth Army, is a legion of ‘Warrior Monks’ with psychic powers. They can read an enemy’s thoughts, pass through solid walls, and even kill a goat just by staring at it. But the programme’s founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), has gone missing and Cassady’s mission is to find him. Bob impulsively decides to tag along, and they track Django to a clandestine training camp run by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). Now the reporter is trapped in the middle of a grudge match between the forces of Django’s New Earth Army and Hooper’s personal militia of super soldiers.
Anyone who sees The Men Who Stare At Goats expecting an insightful and thought provoking journalistic piece is likely to be disappointed. This is because the film lacks the sharp satirical edge of other journalism inspired films, refusing to take itself seriously on any level, being played almost entirely for laughs. If, however, what you expect is a zany offbeat comedy you will be very satisfied. The film’s zany sense of humour revolves heavily around the comic situations that the “Jedi Warrior” characters find themselves in as a result of their ‘special powers’ – or should I say lack of powers, as they don’t really do much – and many of these situations are absolutely hilarious. The success of the humour is largely dependent on the performances of the extremely game cast with Jeff Bridges being the highlight as New Age hippy Bill Django, an equally hilarious performance from Kevin Spacey and George Clooney a perfect fit for the offbeat role of Lyn Cassady. If there is a weak link to be found it is Ewan McGregor. It’s not that he is bad exactly but rather that he is too greatly out shadowed by his much funnier co-stars. The story is somewhat lacking in places, resulting in the film failing to succeed in its (few but present) more serious elements, but so much of the film is focused on humour, and the humour is so successful that it is easy to forgive this. So, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a great bit of escapism that, if not taken too seriously, is thoroughly enjoyable, but anyone who wants to see a more serious film will be disappointed. Either way, it is a lot more entertaining than actually staring at goats. And it is certainly amusing to know that “More of this is true than you may believe”.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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