The ultimate anti-war movie moment once belonged to Dr. Strangelove: Slim Pickens astride a nuclear weapon, whooping it up as he falls to his doom.
That killer sequence now has some company: the sight of soldiers staring down an innocent goat in a new war comedy starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, inspired by true events gleaned from Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book, recalls the U.S. military’s efforts to harness paranormal powers to help boost the war machine.
And yes, the soldiers in question do stare down a hapless goat at one point in the film.
Clooney’s political leanings and previous films (like Three Kings) would make one guess that Goats is just another incendiary anti-war effort. But while the film gleefully tweaks war via the aforementioned goat, the film isn’t as ideologically intense as one might expect.
It’s also blisteringly funny at times, although the film’s premise never gives way to a compelling narrative.
McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a small-town journalist who becomes a war correspondent to burnish his professional bona fides. The move also lets him escape the wreckage of his just collapsed marriage.
He ends up meeting Lyn Cassidy (Clooney), a former soldier who once worked as part of a New Age-y regiment wielding psychic powers, not just guns, on the battlefield.
Lyn is a loose cannon, a part perfectly tailored for Clooney, who seems to thrive when airlifted into farcical scenarios. He’s also not quite the innocent he appears to be.
The two end up being captured by al-Qaeda-style thugs, but the story flashes back and forth from their predicament to Lyn’s indoctrination into the New Age-y side of the military years earlier.
There we meet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges in full “Dude” mode), a pony-tailed shaman who teaches his recruits to use their minds, and plenty of hippie-approved accoutrement, to defeat the enemy. A better film would have elevated Django to cult hero status, but Bridges doesn’t bring enough singular eccentricity to his performance.
Goats delivers some gut-busting sequences, and first-time helmer Grant Heslov shows the comic timing of a big screen pro. The laughs arrive without warning, but they start to thin as the movie trudges on to its wan conclusion.
The film as a whole feels like a lost opportunity, from the starry cast to the juicy premise.
Goats gets plenty of mileage out of the notion that the psychic warriors called themselves Jedi warriors, especially given the choice to cast the erstwhile Obi-Wan Kenobi, McGregor, in the lead.
McGregor and Clooney make an agreeable team, their disparate comic sensibilities blending nicely with the material in play. But McGregor’s character remains a cipher of a shell of a shadow. We’re given his personal statistics, but the actor can’t fill in any other blanks. And the duo’s trek across the Middle East becomes tiresome; it’s hard not to wonder midway through where all of this is going.
Kevin Spacey’s appearance as a Jedi warrior gone sour adds to the Oscar winning actor’s recent run of weak performances.
Even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives might wish Goats took a harder political stance, or any position that gave this rudderless enterprise some focus. Goats goes so far as to include a news snippet of President George W. Bush without turning the moment into a cheap laugh.
That’s more amazing than trying to psychically off a goat.
We do get a late anti-torture lecture, a quick reference to the dark side which is handled clumsily, and an astoundingly immoral moment where our so-called heroes take enormous pity on some prisoners. The film also includes a fire fight between two security squads, sort of like Blackwater vs. Blackwater, played for chuckles, of course.
The best bits in The Men Who Stare at Goats are the silliest. Hearty soldiers run straight into walls thinking their psychic powers will let them glide right through the dense material. A psychic true believer trying to stop the heart of a hamster to impress a reporter.
But the film loads up on such moments, either unwilling or unable to use them as a jumping off point for more pointed commentary or richer character development.
War is hell, and a movie mocking the military via extrasensory maneuvers is a fine way to score some quick anti-war points.
The Men Who Stare at Goats starts with that bright premise but lacks a battle plan for blending laughter with smart social satire.