Notes On A Film: The Men Who Stare At Goats

This film about psychic spies in the US Army, adapted from a book written by British journalist Jon Ronson, missed a trick that could have enhanced the viewing pleasure for the audience, if my experience of watching this film in a London cinema on a quite Tuesday evening is anything to go by. In the film, Ewan McGregor’s American journalist has chanced upon former ‘psychic spy’ (or ‘Jedi warrior’, as he refers to himself) Lyn Cassaday (George Clooney), and they have ended up being captured in the Iraqi desert. McGregor has been trying to find out more about Clooney’s psychic ability and now seems the appropriate time, so Clooney begins to tell him. As he does, the sound goes off for about 30 seconds and then the screen goes black. Brilliant, I thought – they’re trying to suggest that only the psychic can truly hear what Clooney is trying to tell them. Only it wasn’t – the film had just broken down at an amusingly timed point, and they just restarted the film from the point where the sound cut out, which is a shame because my interpretation is better, and it would have been a great joke that people would have been telling their friends about.

This film has its tongue firmly in its cheek as Clooney tells McGregor about the creator of the New Earth Army, the unit dedicated to unleashing superpowers in the US army: Bill Django, played to perfection (as always) by Jeff Bridges, who had a vision in the Vietnam war and then went on a quest to learn all he could about remote viewing, walking through walls, invisibility and cloud bursting, before coming back to teach it to soldiers who might be attuned to it. This is funny stuff, watching Bridges and Clooney playing off each other, with Kevin Spacey as Clooney’s nemesis in the unit because he wants to use the dark side of these powers.

The narrative of the film is a combination of a road movie with McGregor and Clooney, with flashbacks to the Bridges/Clooney/Spacey days, until the final act of the film where it gets perhaps a little too silly (involving spiking the water with LSD of a private research firm researching psychic phenomena in Iraq that is run by Spacey, who employs a now depressed and alcoholic Bridges, where McGregor and Clooney end up). It’s a little ramshackle but in an affectionate and charming manner, reminding me of an Ealing comedy more than anything else (which is a compliment).

The film is amusing (any movie that has a discussion about being a Jedi warrior and Jedi mind powers with Ewan McGregor’s character after his turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi has got to know it is being funny), and Clooney, Bridges and Spacey are great fun, but it is not a great film. A large part of this is due to the director, Grant Heslov (Clooney’s production partner and co-writer of Good Night, And Good Luck), who doesn’t seem to be in complete control of the story and the balance. Another aspect that occurred to me was McGregor and his performances in accents not his own: he is not as naturally charming when doing an American accent compared with his native voice. This conclusion was crystallised when I happened to catch The Island on television at about the same time; in it, McGregor is rather nondescript as the American-sounding hero of the film, but where he meets his original self, a Scottish speedboat designer (McGregor again, but with his own accent), the Scottish-sounding McGregor is much more fun, charming and interesting than the clone, allowing McGregor’s natural charisma to shine through (see Trainspotting or Shallow Grave for natural charisma). In The Men Who Stare At Goats, McGregor is our point-of-view character, but he doesn’t have the required charm that would make the journey more enjoyable.

Rating: VID

[See here for my film rating system]

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