Monthly Archives: November 2009

What’s Playing in Town — Men Staring at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a book by Jon Ronson that claims to tell some truly bizarre facts about the U.S. military’s foray into some psychic experiments in its Fort Bragg training facility that involve mind control, and what the film calls “nonviolent combat.” Some of these tactics, which for some reason include a room full of maimed goats (they have had their bleating abilities removed) were tested in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Weird stuff.

The film pulls a mental prank repeatedly on an audience that is caught between images of Ewan McGregor’s still young visage in a t shirt and a journo’s charcoal trousers, running around Iraq with George Clooney (he has a gift), who calls himself a Jedi. That’s right, Clooney’s a Jedi, but so is Ewan McGregor, sort of, whose American accent is woven of the same lyrical inflections as his Obi Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ latter three Star Wars Films. So Clooney’s telling an incredulous McGregor to act and think like a Jedi, while Jeff Bridges is The Dude in the desert, in a chakra shirt and braided hair, teaching soldiers the art of nonviolent combat.

We’re left with a film that is fun, strangely, despite the fact that it doesn’t pick up any of these pieces and turn them into something meaningful. Clooney’s professionalism is apparent when he is shifting to and fro from absurd human nature to cynicism. He can run up allys and sail down sand dunes, his arms aloft like a flying squirrel, into the body of his nameless assailant, and his body, stretched tall, still rivals Hollywood’s most tenacious hotties. He’s a pro, like the best who came before him, Cary Grant and Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Those guys didn’t make too many boring movies.

Where the film chooses the option to follow a few true stories of American war practices that involve psychic experiments in contention with Russia and the unfortunate test subjects (the animal in the film’s title), it loses the seriousness of the idea that is presented at the beginning. That is, people are far more efficient at being peaceful than they are in violence. As ridiculous as this sounds, try watching the scene in which Clooney’s character kills a goat while staring at it from across a room, and see how acutely you feel for the poor absurd creature.

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