By Elijah Sullivan
It must have seemed like a water-tight premise for a movie: a true story about the U.S. Army soldiers trained to read minds and to kill goats by – you guessed it – just staring at them. Cast George Clooney as the spy, Ewan McGregor as the plucky journalist, and Jeff Bridges as the commander/guru, and watch the money roll in.
That film is here – and it’s just as random, subversive and hilarious as the premise suggests.
In 2004, journalist Jon Ronson published a book called The Men Who Stare At Goats, a comprehensive history of a program within the military called the First Earth Battalion, who trained “psychic spies” for the Cold War. A wealth of fascinating history is covered, and much of it was caught on film for Ronson’s very wonderful Channel 4 documentary, The Crazy Rulers of the World, which can be found on the internet.
While the book begins with the promise, “This is a true story”, the film opens with the less-is-more assurance that “”More of this is real than you would believe.” The chief pleasure of all this, of course, is watching these fringy personalities attempting to gain credibility as they relate the story of their involvement in the First Earth Battalion. Transferred to film, this all becomes great fodder for comedy, it retains very little credibility.
George Clooney does a good job balancing parody and satire in the same wild-eyed fashion we’ve seen in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001) and Burn After Reading (2008). Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, the First Earth Battalion’s star trainee, who to this day remains the only person to kill a goat with his mind. (In the documentary, a former comrade attempts to reproduce the experiment with his pet hamster.)
Cassady is joined by Ewan McGregor, who plays a journalist added by the filmmakers to help tell the convoluted story. In flashback, we meet the First Earth Battalion’s founder (Jeff Bridges, in full Lebowski mode) and, in the film’s best scenes, flesh out the program’s colorful history.
The personalities at the center of this sprawling story are terrific fun, out-matching even the combined charms of Clooney and McGregor. In a real-life episode that opens the book (and the movie), U.S. General Stubblebine runs stoically into a wall. He can be seen in The Crazy Rulers of the World, voicing his disappointment over never accomplishing his life-long goal of learning to walk through solid objects.
After a hilarious first half, the film suffers a bit from a meandering storyline, mainly due to the fact that most of the story is told in flashback, and the action of the story in the present becomes an unwanted distraction. The ending, in particular, feels a bit like the lemming-minded screenwriters elected to dive off the cliff of anticlimax rather than abandon the Hollywood formula. As we see in the documentary, Clooney’s character is killed after insisting he could survive a Jeep driving over his torso.
Could you ask for a funnier ending? Cassady’s fate in the film is different, reflecting the myth surrounding Cassady’s demise rather than the underlying truth of his character. To modify the words of Mark Twain: if you have to choose between the the truth and the legend, print whichever is funnier.
“The Men Who Stare At Goats”
2009, 93 min, Rated R
Directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson. Starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.