TIFF ’09: The Men Who Stare At Goats

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The Men Who Stare At Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov

Like the oasis its parched protagonists happen upon in the barren Iraqi desert, inspiration is hard to come by beyond the novel premise of Grant Heslov’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking, The Men Who Stare At Goats. Based on a story the film claims is “more true than you think,” Goats holds considerable promise as a riotous foray into the more surreal and absurd aspects of modern warfare, but instead handles its characters with kid gloves, resulting in an amusing but naggingly unmemorable experience.

Sporting a sprightly American accent, Ewan MacGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a small-time Ann Arbor reporter who develops dreams of bigger things when his wife suddenly abandons him. While interviewing a local yahoo, he learns of a secret military project that attempted to foster psychic abilities in an effort to create “supersoldiers,” a story he decides to follow up on while chasing embedded reporters in Kuwait thanks to a chance run-in with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a star member of the project, entitled the “New World Army,” who is (or was) supposedly blessed with real superpowers. Skeptical but nevertheless intrigued, Wilton follows Cassady blindly into Iraq, chasing an elusive “secret mission” that Cassady has supposedly been enlisted for, while Wilton narrates the secret history of the project, originating with the Vietnam experiences of its blissed-out hippie founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).

The concept of military intelligence as a playground for new-age inanity is a one ripe for pointed satire, particularly in an age wherein the cluelessness of military brass is increasingly evident, but Heslov, partially adapting Jon Ronson’s book (already fodder for a BBC documentary series) opts for the safest possible route, exploiting the concept for maximum silliness. That might have worked as an effective comic approach, and it does yield quite a few chuckle-worthy sight gags (most of them involving animal endangerment, though one uses an IED as a punchline – no small feat post-Hurt Locker), but without a sense of danger, or even an attempt at depicting actual warfare (apart from a couple of perfunctory, small-scale gunfights), Goats exudes a disingenuous cuteness that disguises the real-life repercussion of psychological warfare – when the “dark side” of psi-ops research finally makes an appearance, it is unmistakably perfunctory. Clooney and MacGregor’s considerable comic energy can’t make the film rise above its own lowered intentions.
(Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.)
Simon Howell

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