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Venice 09: The Men Who Stare At Goats
Posted on Tuesday September 8, 2009, 12:56 by Damon Wise

The Men Who Stare At Goats didn't fill me enthusiasm when I first heard about it. No disrespect to the book, but I didn't see how a fiction feature could be woven out of Jon Ronson's largely anecdotal history of the American military's covert experiments with psychic warfare – to be frank, I'd have been more excited about a documentary. Having seen it, however, I must admit that it does work. There are some obvious pitfalls – there's really not much of a central story, so it doesn't feel quite as emotionally satisfying a good movie should – but there are some great performances, a lot of very deft comedy and writer Peter Straughan (aided by Grant Heslov's tight direction) captures the deadpan, ironic style of Ronson's writing despite making major changes to the framework.

Ronson is not a character in the movie but his role in the book is reflected in the film in the character of Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a cuckolded, smalltown journalist whose life is thrown into disarray when his wife leaves him for his (for some reason) one-armed editor. Because he is now single, and to prove to his wife that he 's not... he's not... (he never gets round to saying what he's not), Wilton signs up to be embedded in the army so he can cover the war in Iraq. It's 2003, and Wilton only gets as far as a hotel in Kuwait City, where he watches with envy as the other reporters return from the frontline of the action. By chance, he runs into a fellow American, who claims to be working in the trash-can business. Though he calls himself Skip, the guy's ID tag says his name is Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and Wilton recalls a conversation with a fruitcake he once met – a man who claimed to have trained with Cassady in an ultra-secret army cell, where he learned to kill with his mind. Cassady tries to deny it, but, because of a doodle that Wilton draws in his notepad, he decides to trust the reporter and takes him along on his next trip to Iraq.

Other than this thin narrative thread, the film otherwise stays pretty close to the events depicted in the book, with Wilton relating how the Americans first became obsessed with “psy ops” in the 70s and, through the fictional (I think) character of whacked-out hippie dude Bill Django, conducted some pretty far-out experiments using both New Age and ancient mystical techniques. This ought to be the weakest aspect of the film, since the best stuff is simply Wilton relaying to the viewer what Cassady is telling him, and the first hour is dominated by voiceover. But it's hard to be to put out, simply because the story being told is such enormous fun, and the cast couldn't have been better chosen. Aside from the two leads, there's Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephens Root and Lang and Robert Patrick, and there's a richness and confidence in all these turns that really makes up for the flimsiness of the plot, such as it is. Even McGregor's US accent is good, perhaps his best yet, and he makes a very good straight man in what's essentially a mismatched buddy movie.

However, and you could probably see this coming, it really is Clooney's movie, and The Men Who Stare really showcases his old-school charisma. As his comedies go, his work here is up there with O Brother, and without him, the film would have been a very different beast indeed. As it stands, it doesn't have a lot to say other than, “Hey, guys, some weird shit's been happening,” but Heslov's film doesn't set out to do anything other than entertain. There's a word in Italian I've been dying to use, and if you're planning to see this film, it applies. It's “Divertiti” and it means “Enjoy yourself”. And if you go with the flow, you most likely will.

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Comments

1 beardyphysics
Posted on Tuesday September 8, 2009, 15:41
I saw the trailer and thought this looked fantastic, something light hearted and fun. I loved george clooney in o brother and in burn after reading, he has great comic timing. The rest of the cast are also amazing, can't wait till its out here.

2 Manfrendshensindshen
Posted on Tuesday September 8, 2009, 16:08
Sounds interesting and somwhat leftfield, like The Informant!, though in both cases I'm not entirely sure all those strengths actually add up to a great film, though I wish they are.

On a different note I have to commend cinema's recent rediscovery of Stephen Lang's talents. It's great to see the man formerly known as The Nutter From The Hard Way getting fine (supporting) roles!

3 filmburner30
Posted on Wednesday September 9, 2009, 11:20
I have just seen the trailer and its looks really really good.

I second the thing about Stephen Lang what a underated actor he is.

I wonder if we will get some on set Jeff Bridges pics ,as he always has a camera handy


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