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HuffPost Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

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The Men Who Stare At Goats
2009
90 minutes
Rated R

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a miserable misfire, completely draining any and all life from the rather astounding narrative that it is trying to tell. I have no idea if the stories contained are true, and that frankly shouldn't matter. The movie fails as a vehicle to uncover true life conspiracy of the zaniest order. It also fails as a tale of absurdest comic fiction. It is a flat and often dull drudge of a film, a low-water mark for most involved (it's George Clooney's worst film ever, yes worse than Batman & Robin). The film is so bad that it may in fact be a conspiracy, a concerted effort to nullify the truth of Jon Ronson's tale by trapping it in a film that will teach us little and entertain few. After all, as Lex Luthor famously said in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again, "Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing; especially when no one is listening."

A token amount of plot - Based on an allegedly non-fiction book by Ronson, this is a tale of the fabled 'New Earth' US Army battalion, founded in the early '80s to create warrior monks/super soldiers. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is attempting to prove his manhood and save his crumbling marriage by losing himself in the drama of the Iraq war. Stuck in Kuwait, he stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to be a former member of a pioneering Special Forces unit of psychic soldiers who were training in order to acquire literal super powers and end armed conflict the world over. Through flashbacks, we see how the unit was founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) and then corrupted and destroyed from within by the devious Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).

The idea that the US government would attempt to turn its fighting forces into the equivalent of the Justice League (with the powers of invisibility, walking through walls, telepathy, etc.) is an amusing one. But the film itself gives only tiny, fragmented details of how this program actually operated and what skills they attempted to acquire. The present-day narrative is completely pointless to the eventual story and we keep wanting to return to the past, which is where the far more worthwhile storytelling is being conducted. But even there, the film is crippled by the stilted, overly expository voice-over from Ewan McGregor. While McGregor gives one of his worst performances, he is not helped by the voice-over dialogue, which is easily the worst of its kind since James McAvoy spelled it all out for us over and over again in Wanted.

The rest of the acting is adequate, but Bridges and Spacey are constrained by the archetypes that they represent, which is in itself the film's cleverest gimmick. While Clooney immediately refers to himself as a Jedi, we realize about 2/3 of the way through the picture that the film is literally following the story arc of the first four Star Wars films. Imagine if A New Hope was interspersed with flashbacks from Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, and you'll have a general idea of how the movie plays out. To a certain extent, the film uses the Star Wars angle to contrast the hippie generation and their peaceful ideals with more hawkish 'dark side' that eventually corrupted the 'New Earth' work. The irony of having the former Ben Kenobi portraying a variation on Luke Skywalker is not lost on me, but it does not excuse the otherwise fatal miscasting.

Still, while I concede that the film eventually has something to say, it's a heck of a long slog through those first 70-minutes to get to the final reel. Even with the amusing gimmick and the last act that rather shockingly ties the story into modern-day history and politics, the film is undone still by an obnoxious and inexplicable final scene. But the film's biggest sin is that it really doesn't teach us anything about this legendary experiment in peaceful war-making and it is so lacking in basic entertainment that most moviegoers will be reluctant to learn more. The film eventually takes note of a stark reality of modern journalism, that the media often does not hide the truth so much as deliver it in a fashion that will cause everyone to lose interest. Oddly enough, The Men Who Stared At Goats is a shining example of just that kind of cover-up. Like Spacey's equally odious anti-capital punishment thriller The Life of David Gale, Clooney's latest vehicle is a leftist political film that is so bungled that one wonders if its creation was a right-wing conspiracy.

Grade: D+