Friday, November 6, 2009

Men Who Stare at Goats

Men Who Stare at Goats begins by stating that more of what you are about to see is true than you would believe.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson the film takes us into the world of government funded programs to create psychic spies, or as George Clooney's character likes to call them - Jedi Warriors.

The film is presented from the perspective of reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who stumbles upon the unlikely story while trying to prove something to himself (and his ex-wife after she leaves him for his boss) by jumping hastily into a dangerous story without thinking.

If you enjoy quirky comedies then this one's for you. Although the film runs out of gas before it runs out of film there are plenty of chuckles plus a few big laughs. McGregor is well-cast as the skeptic who uncovers a story too ridiculous to believe. Would the government actually fund secret programs to create soldiers who could walk through walls, burst clouds with their mind, use telepathy, and gaze into the future? The answer provides many of the film's best moments. And I've got to give credit to director Grant Heslov for the inspired casting of Obi-Wan Kenobi who looks confused every time the phrase Jedi is used.

But as good as McGregor is, the real stars here are the Jedi Warriors themselves. Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, and Stephen Lang all provide the right mix of insanity, paranoia, and an unwavering belief that all these things are real, and possible. Stephen Root has a small early cameo early in the film to set the tone and the other members of the New Age Army run with it.

The title of the film (and of the book) comes from one of the experiments done by the Jedi Warriors where the soldiers are trained to kill goats by staring at them. The "success" of Clooney's character achieving this unlikely act, in one of the film's many flashbacks, moves the movie into its darker scenes. The film gets a little too bogged down here before trying return to the more quirky crazy which makes up the rest of the film.

There's a flashback early on where the program is started, like so many were during the Cold War, in an attempt not to let Soviets get the upper-hand. This moment reminded me of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the characters discuss not allowing the Commies a mineshaft gap. We simply can't let them beat us, no matter the cost (or the ridiculous kinds of situations such thinking leads to). Like so much of the rest of the film, this moment is funny because it is true.

There's nothing about the movie that demands a theater visit, but it is worth seeing. If you're willing to wait, it would make a nice DVD double feature with something like Charlie Wilson's War.

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