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2 out of 4 stars


The Men Who Stare at Goats

  • Directed by Grant Heslov
  • Written by Peter Straughan
  • Starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Bridges
  • Classification: 14A

There's a certain whiff about The Men Who Stare at Goats , which is not the aroma of the livestock of the title, but the pungent aroma of self-satisfaction. Like the larky series of Ocean's movies, though on a fraction of the budget, Goats is a conspiracy story with a high-profile cast - George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges - all trying to outdo each other in wacky, deadpan performances as a trio of screwball U.S. psychic agents.

Goats is produced by Clooney and directed by Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the Edward R. Murrow biopic, Good Night, and Good Luck , and, at least on the face of it, it's another example of Clooney expressing his liberal conscience through film.

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The script is based on reality - or at least what passes for reality in U.S. military-intelligence circles. As the film opens, the onscreen text makes a baffling declaration: "More of this is true than you would believe."

The source of the story is British journalist Jon Ronson's 2005 non-fiction book of the same title, which documented the U.S. Army's research into paranormal and psychological warfare since the Eisenhower era. The movie focuses on Ronson's revelations about a hippie-influenced psychic commando squad formed by the U.S. military at the end of the seventies. Among the techniques they purportedly worked on were disarming enemies with flirtatious "dazzle eyes," walking through walls, predicting the future and - by practising on goats - mastering the art of death by staring.

The Men Who Stare at GoatsOfficial trailer

Trying to put this absurdity into a dramatic shape, scriptwriter Peter Straughan invents hapless reporter Bill Wilton (a flat Ewan McGregor, very much sucking the hind teat here), who stumbles on the story of the secret psychic commandos.

Running away from a marriage gone wrong, Wilton takes off to Kuwait during Desert Storm. In a hotel bar, he meets a grizzled military man who declares himself a former "Jedi warrior" (at least McGregor doesn't smirk). The man's name is Lyn Cassady (Clooney). He was previously the star of the New Earth Army's future-predicting, goat-killing team. Cassady's story jibes with the ravings of a kook Wilton previously met in the United States, so he decides to follow him into Iraq on a secret mission.

During an interval when they get kidnapped, Cassady fills Wilton in, through a series of flashbacks. The movie catches fire briefly with the story of Marine colonel Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who had a vision while being blown up in Vietnam. He left the army, turned hippie, and then returned to sell the brass on a new scheme: An army of peace-inducing "warrior monks" who work with thoughts rather than bullets. ("We'll be the first superpower to have superpowers.") Basic training includes Buddhist chanting, colonics, daily affirmations, dancing to Billy Idol and competitive ESP games.

The fun stops with the arrival of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). An ambitious careerist, envious of Django's star status, he's determined to get rid of all this "hippie crap." Hooper usurps the leadership and turns the New World Army over to the "dark side." A reunion in the Iraq desert finds Hooper now heading up a privatized mercenary force, still working on the goats and subjecting PoWs to cruel and unusual treatment, including video loops of Barney the Dinosaur.

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All this feels like a long prelude to a real film that never happens. Director Heslov, making his feature directing debut, is awkward with the time transitions, and reliant on slapstick humour - car crashes, roof falls and pokes in the eye. These Stooges-like antics are more about showing what good sports his stars are than honing any real satiric edge.

Among the grounds for court martial is a flagrant misuse of farce. Ronson's book documents how some of these awful ideas found their way into George W. Bush's War on Terror, including the use of torture music at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The movie revels in the lunacy while shrugging off the cruelty. If this is what a Hollywood liberal conscience looks like, it's a glib and useless thing.

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