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The Men Who Stare at Goats

Grant Heslov

The only thing wrong with this picture is its title. The title is a mistake not because it's off-puttingly strange or because it doesn't describe Grant Heslov's film although both points are indeed attributes but because it doesn't even hint at the home truth that is under consideration here: there is no limit to the force field of bullshit that, working together, restless and imaginative men can generate in order to protect themselves from the tedium of everyday life. Spend enough time with a group of such men, and you will either call in the Inquisition to shut it down or slip helplessly behind the force field yourself. The latter course allows the initially skeptical Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a newspaper reporter, to exit the movie by walking through a wall.

As a comedy, The Men Who Stare at Goats focuses on the itchy, antic side of what happens when common sense goes fungal, but there are moments of terror, at least for the members of the audience. How about this for a setup: at a fully-armed quasi-military base in the middle of Nowhere, Iraq, pranksters contaminate the drinking water with LSD. Laff riot, huh? Although an earlier episode with lysergic acid diethylamide ends with a distraught and naked soldier shooting at his colleagues before taking a bullet in the mouth, the group trip is utterly peaceable, even if a tank driver crashes through the cyclone fencing. Mr Heslov and his co-conspirator, George Clooney, do not wish to scandalize or scold. They want to show you the sheer fun of participating in collective lunacy.

Notionally, The Men Who Stare at Goats is about a handful of men from the New Earth Army, an experimental squadron of American soldiers who strive to master non-violent alternatives to making war. "Remote viewing" (mental telepathy) is one highly-sought technique. Invisibility is another. The powers of concentration are minutely explored. Does any of this work? Whether it does or not, the men in the New Earth squad believe that it does, at least sometimes, or that it is just about to work. Like ideologues everywhere, they have discovered the secret of life and promptly submitted to it, and they live in the schizophrenic relation to everyday ideas of "active" and "passive" that is peculiar to all True Believers. In their zeal to meld with the universe, they have allowed their critical faculties to melt like Dreamsicles on an August left field. This sort of thing usually leads to social nightmares, but the point being made here is that the delusiveness that we associate with sects and terrorists can, especially if experienced by healthy American men, be a lot of fun.

Edgy fun, to be sure. As Lyn Cassady, one of the more gifted New Earth soldiers, Mr Clooney polishes a trademark persona last seen in Burn After Reading to a signature luster. Making genial use of his natural gifts, Mr Clooney knows how to invest dodgy goofballs with boyish ingenuousness: he really can make you believe that his character has no idea of how attractive he is. This attractiveness is not always, and certainly not only, a matter of lucky bone structure. It's more a matter of bringing out an inner nine year-old, and canceling the catastrophe of puberty, after which life becomes meaningful but only at the terrible cost of false consciousness. The return to innocence is a preoccupation of the other soldiers in the unit as well, whether naively, in the case of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), the squad leader who is changed forever by an epiphany in a rice paddy; or despairingly, like Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), the snake in the garden who ultimately finds his level in military contracting. Or even beatifically: the senior officer in charge of all this nonsense, Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) glows like a Gurnemanz who has found a whole troop of Parsifals.

In any case, The Men Who Stare at Goats is not a movie about the Army, or the CIA, or the Vietnamese and Iraqi misadventures. The picture opens with a legend, words to the effect that more of what follows is true than you might think. Well, maybe you might be surprised. I was not. This is a film that has to be seen several times before its finer points can be discussed; in the meantime, have a look at the 1999 comedy that is the opposite bookend, Three Kings. (November 2009)

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