A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 219 – The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats – September 5th, 2010

I remember when this came out. I recall seeing ads for it on television and thinking it had a great cast and an amusing premise that I was sure must be based somewhat on reality. Being the straightlaced kid that I was, I never got into drugs, but I read a hell of a lot about the drug culture of the 1960s. I probably worried my parents sick with my reading choices. Illuminatus! was a staple (though looking back, I far prefer The Schrodiner’s Cat Trilogy), and I bought myself a copy of Timothy Leary’s autobiography. I found the whole time period and culture fascinating. I read up on MK ULTRA and the government’s experiments with LSD. I wrote a poem about Abbie Hoffman for a creative writing class in high school. Why didn’t anyone ever attempt an intervention? Probably because it was painfully obvious that I was a total square. But I was a total square who’d done research!

So, when I heard about this movie, I had a vague idea that yeah, the US military has a history of having done some weird stuff that ultimately led nowhere. And conspiracy theorists will always be glad to share their thoughts on how it didn’t lead nowhere, that’s just what they want you to think! And so it’s great fodder for a story, right? Sure! And there’s the great cast! Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey! Stephen Root! Sounds like fun. And I’ll be honest. It was fun. It was fun enough that I’m glad we own it and I’m a little sorry that we missed it in the theater. But, well. It’s got some flaws.

For one, the movie is trying to be a couple of things and I’m not sure it can be all of those things at once. It’s a commentary on the US presence in Iraq, both military and private sector. It’s a guys bonding with guys movie. It’s about a midlife crisis, or really a bunch of midlife crises. It’s also a farce and a parody and a story about redemption. That’s a lot. The trouble for me is that the redemption and midlife crisis bits are fairly heartfelt and the rest of kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s an odd balance. It tips sometimes. And then there’s how it’s told.

The movie is narrated by Ewan MacGregor. The conceit is that he’s a journalist named Bob whose wife leaves him for his editor and who embarks on a journey to the Middle East to try and do something daring to prove his manhood. By chance he meets a man named Lyn Cassady, whom he’d heard about from a guy he’d interviewed for his paper. A guy claiming he had psychic powers and had been trained to use them in the Army. Lyn sees that Bob’s been doodling pyramids with eyes and off they go to Iraq on a mission. What mission? Who knows! It’s just a mission. Scenes of the two of them bumbling their way into and out of trouble in Iraq are intercut with flashbacks (haha, flashbacks, in a movie with lots of LSD, oh, man, hilarious) to the development of the US military’s psychic warfare program, the New Earth Army. These scenes are introduced and explained by Bob as told to him by Lyn.

Really, for the majority of the movie there are two stories. There’s Bob and Lyn in Iraq, getting kidnapped and into car accidents and shot at by rival security contractors and driving over landmines, and there’s the background to the story. There’s Lyn’s whole history with the founder of the New Earth Amy, Bill Django, and his rival in the program, Larry Hooper. We see the soldiers grow their hair long and dance and pinpoint the locations of personnel at the orders of their commanding officers. We see them identify photos and do a much better job than that girl Peter Venkman hits on in Ghostbusters. It’s the story of psychic escalation. Sort of like nuclear escalation, only with people convinced they can walk through walls or kill goats with their minds. That’s all fun stuff, but it’s doled out in bite size chunks, almost episodic in nature.

I get the concept. I understand that the movie is trying to give the audience the background and the foreground at the same time before bringing them together. The trouble is that by the time Bob and Lyn show up at Larry’s camp in the desert, where he’s a private contractor specializing in psychological warfare and has Bill working for him, there’s about twenty minutes left in the movie. We’ve spent the whole film going back and forth and back and forth and now that we’re all in the same place everything has to come together very quickly. Oh, Bill’s a drunk now and has lost faith in his powers? Lyn might have been making it up all along? Bob has to find it in himself to believe enough that he can give the two of them their redemption and Larry his comeuppance at the same time? Right! Let’s get on that and make it snappy!

It’s a very self-aware movie, from the Jedi jokes made by and to Ewan MacGregor’s character to the mention of Timothy Leary. This is a movie that knows all its own jokes and is already laughing at them before they play out. It knows that people today will find the idea that the military even entertained thoughts of psychic combat hilarious. But there was a time when people were dead serious about it. Which is sort of where the humor lies, really. And yes, it is humorous. The movie hits a lot of notes right. Clooney, Bridges, Spacey and MacGregor all give great performances, each investing a different depth and kind of belief in the whole thing. Clooney and MacGregor have some great comedic chemistry (and Clooney really is a fun comedic actor – I’m reminded muchly of his performance in O Brother, Where Art Thou? here). Bridges throws himself into the character of Bill Django and Spacey is thoroughly invested in being a total dick. It’s all good fun. I just wish it wasn’t quite so sloppy in the telling.

October 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Men Who Stare at Goats

October 5, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The very fact that this movie exists is proof that somebody was drinking the cool-aid. In the movie George Clooney plays a man who believes that he once had psychic powers. I think that in reality George Clooney was exercising his own peculiar psychic pull to to bring into being something very strange. He acted as producer on the project as well as an actor, and he’s surrounded himself with a great group of actors in service of a story that quite deliberately defies all credulous belief.

This is the story of a timid reporter named Bob Wilton who sets out for the Iraq war in an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of his ex-wife and himself. He doesn’t really get to cover the war though because his quest becomes sidetracked when he encounters Lyn Cassady – a former member of the New Earth Army. The New Earth Army is a top secret experimental group from the eighties funded by the pentagon with the aim of unleashing the powers of psychic energy. It’s a crazy collection of mixed up belief systems from the sixties and seventies headed by Bill Django – a military officer who after a traumatic incident in Vietnam went on a journey of discovery in search of a way to heal the world. Django’s unit uses in the flashbacks in this movie a bizarre mix of new age thinking from dance therapy to prayer circles to unleash their psychic energy, and the most powerful among them was Lyn.

There’s a whole lot of back story sprinkled throughout this movie in flashbacks as Lyn and Bob get into deeper and deeper trouble floundering around the deserts of Iraq. It’s all to do with the unlikely origens of the New Earth Army and its inevitable and tragic end. There’s infighting and inrtigue (chiefly from Larry Hooper, one of the newer recruits to the army.) There are impossible psychic feats by Lyn. Ultimately the story in the past and the one on the present intersect in a series of unlikely synchronicities. We discover just what Lyn’s quest in Iraq is, and just whom he is attempting to save.

There is so much about this movie that seems like a sort of meta spoof of itself. Part of it is in the casting. Ewan McGregor, who played Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, plays Bob Wilton. At several times in the movie Lyn describes himself as a Jedi Warrior and he says he sees Jedi potential in Ewan’s character Bob. It feels like a very deliberate wink at the audience. Then there’s the brilliant casting of Jeff Bridges as the new age hippie Django who created the Jedi order. It’s almost as thought they cast Jeff Bridges as himself, an aging disillusioned hippie. Clooney is, of course, brilliant as Lyn – all mad intense glares and utter conviction as he relates the most improbable claptrap. Then there’s Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, Lyn’s nemesis who wants to use psychic powers for destructive aims. What a great collection of actors. (Note a quick appearance by Stephen Root as well… always a treat.)

What I enjoyed most about this movie is that right up until the end it leaves it completely up to the viewer to decide what is true about whats going on. You have to decide for yourself if the Jedi powers Lyn goes on about actually exist or are just the results of his own indoctrination. Clearly he believes in them, but as the movie progresses Bob waffles between being on the verge of thinking there might be something more beyond what we generally perceive to be true and fearing that he has tied his fate to the whims of a complete madman.

In the same way the movie itself kind of waffles. It plays the psychic troopers mostly for laughs with a sort of knowing grin to the audience because it knows how silly all of this must sound. On the other hand Clooney plays Lyn as having a deep and complete conviction that everything he relates is absolute truth. He also has a great deal of respect for the stated goal of the New Earth Army to end conflict through psychic means. He wants to be a supernatural warrior for peace, which is a kind of crazy that the movie seems to say we need a little more of.

I suppose you could think of this movie as a sort of subversive discourse on the madness created by war, just in a slightly more loopy way than were used to seeing. More Dr. Strangelove than Full Metal Jacket. I’m left with a desire to hone my own psychic powers and alter the world to make it a better place. Something I try to do on a daily basis.

October 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment