The research undertaken by Ronson, as part of his Channel 4 documentary series ambiguously titled Crazy Rulers of the World, uncovers the strange history of the American military’s interest and investment in the practical application of a psychic soldier; the potential of an Army corp deep undercover in the Twilight Zone. The script, adapted by Peter Straughan, had been riding the Hollywood circles for a few years until it fell into the hands of Grant Heslov and George Clooney who saw immense potential in lifting the veil on a story that strains credulity and takes delight in watching peace and love collide spectacularly with war and death.
The film adaptation, directed by Grant Heslov and starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges begins with the inter-title ‘More of this is true than you would believe’, and promptly delivers the fixed stare of a high ranking army official before he runs head first into a wall.
It is a suitable start to a film whose greatest moments lie in the militarisation of the hippie movement and whose considerable use of flashbacks tell the story of depressed cuckold Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who, after being stuck in a back water newspaper job interviewing a bewildering assortment of local crazies, seeks a redemptive journalistic triumph in the wilds of Kuwait City, and happens upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a retired psychic spy. Seizing his chance to uncover a bizarre and covert military operation Wilton pleads to join Cassady on his, admittedly vague, journey into the desert.
This odd couple road trip takes the characters across a barren Iraq landscape, with roadside bombs and kidnappers on the way. All the time Cassady tells the increasingly anxious journalist the story of how the Army enlisted him and bought him under the command of Bill Django, a Vietnam veteran who survives a near death ambush who sees a vision and opens his mind to the colourful New Age philosophy the Army become interested in taking advantage of; casting a timely lightness against the darkness of the Vietnam war.
Jeff Bridges plays Django and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were watching the history of The Dude before his found his bowling balls and went shopping for rugs. His G.I. Lebowski is a highlight of the film and adds unexpected pathos as we discover his fate when the film catches up with him in present day. Also introduced in the flashbacks is the conniving Larry Hooper (played with gleeful, deadpan maliciousness by Kevin Spacey), who after playing second fiddle to Clooney’s impressive psychic ability begins experimenting illegally with LSD and blames the death of a fellow soldier on Django. The Army’s warrior monks are disbanded and Hooper forces the unit’s emphasis to harness the power of the mind, to infuse the work of mother nature with a vicious twist – plainly, to be able to stop the beating heart of a goat by staring at it. And that’s just the beginning.
It is not hard to accept the premise. Given the lunacy of war, writ large in the fictions of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, it seems entirely appropriate that every angle is tried, including the use of a forever looping theme song of Barney the Dinosaur in the torturing of prisoners. The gloriously backward nature of military decisions is well played here, evoking the very best of Yes Minister-esque double speak and MÃ¶bius logic, and the juxtaposing of sense and nonsense that we accept, along with McGregor’s character, as the film jumps back and forward to a surreal climax in the desert.
Much fun is to be had with the Star Wars references as Django and Cassady’s philosophies and credo are called the ways of the Jedi. Seeing McGregor’s cynical reaction to being told to ‘think like a Jedi’ are great to watch, and though the film claims to be mostly fiction, it is entirely plausible that the Army commandeered Reagan’s Star Wars initiative to its own means.
And while the film never settles into its own rhythm the performances are enough to bring this film to life and provide an engaging experience. My only problem was that the ideas introduced aren’t given the breath to realise the insane potential and the film seeks too hard to provide a suitable resolution for each of the cast (which it achieves, but at the expense of a wavering focus from ideas to characters).
It is an enjoyable film, with excellent performances that elevate, but never overshadow, the ideas contained within.
The filmmakers state that the film, despite the factual roots, is fictional. The trouble is that every crazy minute is entirely plausible.
The Men who Stare at Goats is released in the UK on the 6th of November.