Posted as part of an intermittent series of espionage-related cinema leading up to the release of the new James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ later this year
I’d had it on good authority that ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ was a POS. Despite this, I neglected to delete it from my rental list. So when it turned up last week, my rationale was something like this: aww, hell, it stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, and at a pinch I can feature it as part of my intermittent series of espionage-related cinema, surely it’s worth a watch.
Readers, I watched it.
POS is perhaps a tad harsh – there are a couple of bona fide laugh out loud moments – but to watch Grant Heslov’s film is ultimately to watch a terrific cast squander themselves as a brilliant concept is simply frittered away.
For this reason, we won’t dwell on it too long. Synopsis time: journo Bob Wilton (McGregor) does a human interest piece on bonkers ex-soldier Gus Lacey (Stephen Root) who reminisces about his time with Lyn Cassady (Clooney) in a psychic military unit led by quasi-hippie Bill Django (Bridges). Initially sceptical, Wilton files the story then heads to Iraq to prove himself as a front-line reporter after the breakdown of his marriage. It’s here he bumps into Cassady, who recounts the story of Django’s unit as the pair head across country so Cassady can complete some mysterious mission.
Herein my first problem with the film. Point of view and lead character duties skip from Wilton to Cassady to Django with such skittish abandon that I couldn’t get a handle on whether Heslov and scripter Peter Straughan were being arbitrary, indecisive, or full-on going for an anti-narrative. The tone, too, veers from genuinely amusing to trying-too-hard to actually-quite-mean-spirited, seemingly on a whim.
Round at the halfway mark, the film coheres into the Wilton and Cassady road show, but it’s delivered all its satirical barbs by this point and only one inspired but narratively redundant scene involving Robert Patrick as the head of a US security who gets into a firefight with a different US security force which he happily blames on the Iraqis emerges as memorable. The firefight, incidentally, is over superiority in a queue at a petrol station.
Based on a non-fiction work by Jon Ronson, and opening with the irresistible credit “more of this is true than you would believe”, ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ starts out knee-deep in potential but never fully gets to grips with the off-the-wall political satire the concept demands. Instead we get a smorgasbord of contrived and often unfunny in-jokes, mostly referencing the casts’ previous work. McGregor seems to have been cast purely as the butt of the joke every time one of the psychic irregulars refers to himself as a Jedi warrior.
Heslov, making his feature debut, doesn’t stamp a strong enough visual or satirical signature on the material, particularly when the finale cries out for the demented visual flair of a David Lynch or an Alejandro Jodorowsky. What Heslov manages is ninety minutes of moderate amusement, when Ronson’s book could easily have lit the fuse on a two-hour delirious headfuck.