Winning wars with hamsters and mind-powers

The Men Who Stare at Goats

on September 11, 2009 by Amy Nicholson
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“More of this is true than you'd believe,” read the opening words of Grant Heslov's riotous docu-comedy, based on the 2004 U.S. military expose written by Guardian journalist Jon Ronson. Fresh off writing a book on extremist organizations ( Them, rumored to be being adapted by Edgar Wright), Ronson heard about a soldier with a stare that could stop a goat's heart. The Welsh reporter tracked the lead and unearthed a secret history of the Army's post-Vietnam philosophy where “Be all you can be,” meant “Develop psychic powers.” It was a truth so astounding it read like fiction—and now, partially, it is, as screenwriter Peter Straughan shapes Ronson's years-long odyssey into a few wild days in ‘03 Iraq where counterpart Ewan McGregor gets his mind blown by former psychic spy George Clooney. Marketing this oddball film will be tricky (its closest parallels, Three Kings and The Hunting Party were overlooked gems) but good reviews and great word of mouth are fighting for this flat-out fantastic film.

The movie shares the book's opening scene: A general (Stephen Lang) stares at his office wall. Sweating and wholly fixated on passing straight through it—a teleportation technique called 'phasing' listed in his Army manual—he runs, stopping only when the wood breaks his nose. That happened. The question is: why? To understand, Straughan's adaptation splits Ronson into two characters: McGregor, as a Michigan journalist who asks all the questions and Clooney, as the been-there historian with all the answers. McGregor and Clooney collide in Kuwait. McGregor's there to prove himself to his wife and her new lover (who is also his editor) by covering the supposedly softball Operation Iraqi Liberation. Clooney's on a secret black op mission, not that he tells McGregor about it until the two have been nearly killed by insurgents.

Ironically, that violence is what the New Earth Army was supposed to prevent. Before the mud dried from the Vietnam War, the military was ready to clean up and do some serious soul-searching about what went so wrong. Like a wounded wife on Dr. Phil, the New Earth Army was open to changing its life. And Lt. Col. Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) was ready to lead it. The government funded Django's six-year pilgrimage to learn “how love could win wars.” He came back in 1979 with a 125-page manual on how to shape an Army grunt into the ideal warrior monk. (Sample ideas included calming potential combatants with flowers and lambs and using 'sparkly eyes' to psychically instill the disinclination to attack.) Clooney and his band of men were trained in invisibility, non-lethal defense and mentalism— psychic operations that by the millennium had been bastardized into psychological operations, as in calming combatants with strobe lights, Metallica and the infamous charms of Abu Ghraib. (And, yes, practicing a death stare on goats.)

Heslov's movie races over a lot of ground, and it's a feat that he and Straughan have managed to shape it into a story at all. It helps that they've got a top-notch ensemble. Clooney's natural charm is here, channeled into a man who found himself when he discovered supernatural talents he never knew he had. What others struggled to learn came to him with ease, but with it came the guilt of being the only Jedi capable of “The Dark Side”—a Star Wars theme that runs through the script. The always-welcome J.K. Simmons sparks up his scenes, as does Kevin Spacey as a Johnny Carson-style mentalist who uses his spoon-bending talent to destroy the joy of Django's New Earth Army. Part of the fun of watching the movie will be debating what is and isn't real. Here's a tip sheet: the names are false, the interactions Hollywood-ized, but everything else is astonishingly true—even the man who shows McGregor a video of himself psychically toying with his hamster. It's a story at once optimistic about what the military could do if it replaced its guns with flowers (at least some of the time), and also cynical about what the non-believers and opportunists can—and did—do to that dream. As the film's coda implies, when people are confronted by something incredibly idealistic or incredibly cruel, they need to shrink it into something they understand: a joke. And though Ronson's book and Heslov's film are hilarious, they both recognize the power of the truth, and that's something to take with us out of the multiplex.

Distributor: Overture
Cast: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Rebecca Mader
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Paul Lister
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Rating: TBD
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: November 6, 2009

Make sure to check out our interviews with director Grant Heslov here and reporter Jon Ronson here

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