The Men Who Stare At Goats

It’s been a busy time for at least some actors and journalists.  Ewan McGregor is now appear in two roles in Fargo series 3, while Kevin Spacey is moving on after basking in the warm glow of House of Cards series 5, and George Clooney and his missus are enjoying quality time with their new twins; many journos are probably exercised by Brexit and our recent inconclusive election on this side of the pond, and the latest antics of the cartoonish President Trump Stateside.

I’ve no idea what Jon Ronson is now investigating, but its is his book, apparently based on facts, that formed the inspiration for a wacky and zany satire starring the aforementioned Clooney, McGregor and Spacey, not to mention Jeff Bridges, solid and reliable cast members one and all, attracted no doubt by the other cast, the concept and the wryly amusing script – and maybe even the title.

Perhaps the title was more akin to satire than investigative reporting, but for a film version of The Men Who Stare At Goats Peter Straughan (who also wrote and was Oscar-nominated for the most recent version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, among many other credits.)

There might well be similarities between characters portrayed in the film and real people, though they were being kind in creating from Ronson the rather more sleek and smooth McGregor as an American small-time reporter named Bob Wilton.  Through a series of chance encounters, Wilton learns about a secret army unit training soldiers to develop superpowers.

What follows is a whimsical, gently amusing send up of the US Army, New Earth hippy-dippy stuff, and the tall tales you might hear in an Irish pub (indeed, the film starts with a title page stating words to the effect of, “more of this is true than you would believe.”)  Bridges in particular has a wonderful opportunity to send up hippiedom, which he takes with both hands and delivers in the form of a funny performance ending with pathos as the years of drugs and way out lifestyle take their toll.

But it is Clooney, looking as Lyn Cassady, apparently a combination of three real life people, here to be in his finest Clarke Gable mode, moustache and all, who shows true panache, largely with a deadpan face like a flattened shovel.  The man has presence and an easy charm, there can be no denying it.  Small wonder he attracts admiration from men and women alike, but his ability to construct a larger-than-life character arc is what makes him a hit.

By contrast, McGregor plays the straight man, at least for the first two thirds of the movie, where Spacey, unusually, plays an ambitious and utterly unsympathetic villain, the apparently fictional Larry Hooper, totally out of character – but does it so knowingly you can’t help but smile.  Hooper is the dark side of the experiments.  Not one of the pantomime villains you love to hate but one of those irritating and petulant people who will only accept things going their way – even to the extent of giving Clooney’s Cassady a death curse, which the latter believes gives him cancer.

You name it, there is everything in here from LSD to a Brigadier General convinced he can use the forces of his mind to pass through a solid wall (he fails.)   I won’t list all the ways in which the power of the mind is used to create “Jedi warriors” who can change a conflict; suffice it to say that director Grant Heslov‘s movie is sceptical but does weave a cute little narrative around these bizarre events, based on reality, when the army really did try to create soldiers with superpowers.

Oh yes, I have to mention the goats though.  The idea was that you could stare at a goal for long enough that eventually its heart would stop beating and it would keel over and die.   Who knows, maybe it works, though whether any enemy would sit still and stare long enough for his heart to stop beating is another matter entirely.

The practical applications for some mind games seems to have been lost along the way (which is of course half the fun), at least until Hooper tries cynically to turn the men into killing machines.  The real joke is that probably there really is a squadron of people funded by the army to use the power of their minds to invoke negative thoughts in ISIS suicide bombers.

But hey ho, just enjoy this little movie at face value and you won’t go far wrong.  It’s warm and funny with a worrying flipside, but none the worse for that.

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