Sunday, December 06, 2009

Film Review : The Men Who Stare at Goats (dir Grant Heslov)

On paper, this looked a winner. Jon Ronson’s book, “The Men who Stare at Goats”, had proved a subversive bestseller. The cast was pure Hollywood A-list – George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges. The trailers were very funny. And yet…

When Henry Kissenger won the Nobel Peace prize, Tom Lehrer declared satire redundant. At outset in this film, we are told that some of the events that follow are true. But the story of the First Earth Battalion which is set up to explore opportunities for the use of the paranormal in warfare is so bizarre that it goes well beyond satire, and so the viewer has to decide what is and isn’t true as the film flits between contemporary Iraqi buddy-movie and the story of the setting up of battalion in the 1970s.

The Iraqi framing-device is slight. Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) has been deserted by his wife for the editor of his small-town American newspaper. He decides to prove his macho credentials by heading for Kuwait at the time of the first Iraq war, where he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) who is set on heading into Iraq on a secret mission. Desparate to become embedded with the troops to see some action, Wilton joins with him and while they cross Iraq, he learns about Cassidy’s background and the history of the First Earth Battalion, set up by seventies hippy-soldier Bill Django (Jeff Bridges playing his stoner Big Lebowski type).

At this point, the movie dips into the area covered by Ronson’s book, and does contain some very funny moments. The de-bleated goats and the use of the theme music to Barney and Friends to break down prisoners are based on fact. But then all the strands get brought together in a fictional denouement which ties up all loose ends in a manner which may have seemed satisfying to the producers, but came over to me as infantile and embarrassing. Apparently there has already been a documentary made based on this story, and that would seem to be the appropriate way to bring this story to the screen and not this hotch-potch.

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