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Dramedy inspired by real life: 'But what makes it different is that element of supposed truth'

Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Ap Photo/Overture Films, Laura Macgruder
Ap Photo/Overture Films, Laura Macgruder
In this film publicity image released by Overture Films, George Clooney is shown in a scene from, "The Men Who Stare At Goats."

BBC Films

1 hour, 33 minutes

George Clooney is an interesting actor. He manages to maintain a glossy movie star exterior, while rarely stooping to the kind of mindless, hunky action roles that his icon status usually requires. Brad Pitt is similar, although when he wants to go "indie," he usually has to resort to appearing in weird old age make-up or with a broken tooth.

Not Clooney -- he's always that slick leading man, even when the character is completely bizarre on the inside. Case in point: this week's oddball military dramedy, the inspired-by-a-true-story "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, a one-time member of an elite army battalion tasked with pacification of the enemy through unconventional means. The New Earth Army was to be a group of warrior-monks, so called "Jedi," who could, among other things, read minds and pass through walls. A division of the Special Forces, New Earth was established soon after the Vietnam War and included all manner of new-age theories and varied tenets of the peace movement. Members were recruited based on their enthusiasm for the ideals, as well as for their supposed psychic abilities.

When small-town reporter Bob Wilton, played by Ewan McGregor, stumbles upon Cassady working as a construction contractor in Kuwait in 2002, he begs him to let him write up the story of the New Earth unit and the surrounding weirdness. What follows is a madcap journey through war-torn Iraq, punctuated by often hilarious, though sometimes dark flashbacks showing the rise and fall of the army's real-life Jedi Knights.

Acting-wise, "Goats" does a terrific job. Clooney plays his part pitch perfect as a man who knows deep down that what he says and does are ridiculous, but whose belief is so strong that he can't help but take it all seriously. McGregor is fine as the straight man, but his attempt to Americanize his thick Scottish accent is only mostly successful. I did enjoy all the references to Jedi, though. It's a clever little in-joke to have Obi-Wan himself acting incredulous at the idea of mystical forces and zen warrior-monks.

Rounding out the cast are Jeff Bridges playing Bill Django, the unit's spiritual leader, and Kevin Spacey as the spoon bending antagonist. Both do well in the roles without chewing up the scenery.

The plot itself is well-crafted, although some of the wackiness feels a little forced, and I was somewhat disappointed with the third act wrap-up. There are a host of issues to address, from the prevalence of violence in society and in the army, to the bungling of the war in Iraq, all the way to animal cruelty (the title refers to the attempt to kill a goat just by looking at it). Some of these play out better than others.

There's not really any one major problem with the movie, but for a story with so many fantastic elements, excellent performances, and the fascinating possibility of truth, I feel like I should have been blown away. I wasn't. The tone is too light for that, as though they filmmakers know they are essentially serving up dessert. I was interested. Interested enough to look up some of it online, but something inside me wants to have been moved more. I should be saying, "What!!? The army actually tried to create a band of psychic soldiers to fight the Cold War?! For real?!?"

Instead I came away with more of a sense of, "Huh. That was pretty interesting. I wonder what's for dinner."

It's a little difficult to know what to make of this strange film. On the one hand, it feels like a conventional military comedy, with all the proper humor beats, oddball characters and wacky situations.

But what makes it different is that element of supposed truth. My limited research turned up a few facts -- the original unit was to be called the First Earth Battalion, though whether it was ever actually formed is up for debate. Some of these characters are real people, though their names have been changed and, in some cases I imagine, become composites.

One of the wildest things, however, is that the field manual for this outfit, funded by the Pentagon, actually exists much as it is shown in the film, complete with bizarre uniform and lists of member goals, everything from cutting out the use of cliched phrases to phasing through walls.

Perhaps the specific plot points in this film are fiction -- I don't really know, but the fact that much of what it is based on is verifiably true both makes me like the army a little more, and makes me a little scared of what it's capable of.

Grade: B+

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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