Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Charlotte Observer
Can someone explain George Clooney's fascination with conspiracy theories?
He directs “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” in which an alleged CIA assassin covers up his activities by posing as an idiotic game show host.
Then he directs “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in which a courageous newsman attacks a government conspiracy to harass leftists.
And 10 out of the last 15 movies in which he's acted feature him as the perpetrator of a conspiracy (the “Ocean” trilogy), the victim of it (“Syriana,” “Michael Clayton”) or some kind of tangled-up bystander (“Burn After Reading,” “The Good German”).
Now comes “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” in which he's perpetrator and victim – and a hapless onlooker, too.
I'm not sure just what writer Peter Straughan and director Grant Heslov want us to take away from their film, other than the idea that the ways of the U.S. military are incomprehensibly strange and frequently reprehensible. I enjoyed it, but I'm still trying to figure out what I enjoyed.
Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, who's passing as a contractor in the Middle East when U.S. reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) tries to use him as an entrée into the Iraq war.
Cassady spins a long yarn about the First Earth Battalion, a research team started by New Age-y officer Bill Django (aptly cast Jeff Bridges). Django wanted soldiers to use special psionic powers to spread harmony around the globe, convincing enemies to lay down their arms.
Naturally, his flower-smelling, LSD-dropping sessions didn't go over well with traditional brass. They preferred the approach of cynical, mean-spirited Larry Hooper (aptly cast Kevin Spacey), who wanted to “weaponize” these special soldiers and turn them into mental killers. (The title refers to Cassady's supposed ability to stop an animal's heart by staring at it.)
But is it a yarn? Wilton begins to suspect these camouflaged Jedi Knights (as they call themselves) have settled into Iraq to do something dastardly, possibly in the service of oil companies or war profiteers such as fast-talking Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick).
The writing is haphazard at times, though the situations are funny enough in themselves to sustain our interest. The film lacks the clear political focus of “Syriana” or the easily identifiable good/evil division of “Good Night.”
Even if we sympathize with Django's aims, we're likely to think he's a hopeless nut. And Wilton never comes across as a fully rounded character, however much McGregor sweats to make him one. (We are treated to constant jokes in which the actor who played Obi-Wan Kenobi has to ask what Jedis are and how they work. Ha, but not ha ha.)
So it's Clooney who holds this film together with his charismatic personality and inscrutable demeanor. Cassady may be crazy, but there's enough evidence that he isn't to keep us in suspense.
“More of this is true than you would believe,” says the opening title card. Clooney plays his part as if all of it is as true as the law of gravity. The point of any conspiracy theory is not usually to convince us of its accuracy but to unsettle our once-satisfied minds. We're left with no answers and many questions, and perhaps that's the point here.