The Men Who Stare at Goats (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
"More of this story is true than you would believe," reads the caption at the beginning of The Men Who Stare at Goats, but let's be real: No one involved in this movie goes out of their way to give it the sting of veracity.
Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan are adapting a nonfiction book by journalist Jon Ronson, it's true, and in that book Ronson explores several stranger-than-fiction characters and government operations. For the screen, however, Ronson has been turned into Michigan reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who finds himself distraught after his wife leaves him for his editor, who happens to have a prosthetic arm. You'd be forgiven for wondering whether this is the part of the story that isn't true. (It indeed happens to be that part.) And then for wondering how you're supposed to know the difference.
Determined to throw himself into his work, Wilton heads to the Middle East to find a story in the Iraq war. What he finds instead is a bizarre-sounding tale about a U.S. military operation created to develop "Jedi Warriors" — soldiers with psychic abilities. Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) was one of those would-be warriors decades earlier; now, he's in Iraq and ready to act as Wilton's guide into the strange meeting of the Army and the paranormal.
For the next hour, the narrative swings between the pair's Middle East misadventures and the history of the First Earth Battalion, initiated by idealistic Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Heslov approaches both parts with the same surreal, goofy sensibility, and the result is comedy that's often as entertaining as it is bizarre. Bridges revels in a loose performing energy reminiscent of The Big Lebowski's The Dude, while Clooney conveys the earnestness of a true believer. At just 93 minutes, Goats is light on its feet.
But that same lightness also becomes a hindrance to the film's really being able to go for the satirical jugular. As Ronson's true story turns, Django's blissed-out notion of warriors for peace is appropriated by a military able to focus only on inflicting pain, like the technique suggested by the film's title in which psychics kill animals just by looking at them. Ronson draws a direct connection between 1980s psychic research and later applications of psychological warfare, which is a fairly tragic, if perhaps inevitable, perversion of the battalion's New Age-y intent.
That said, the film's tone is too frivolous to permit serious contemplation of militaristic tunnel vision. Heslov and Straughan take a few swipes at greedy civilian contractors, but miss the big target: an armed forces apparatus that sees problems as nails to be hammered down.
It's easy to feel the pain of a screenwriter tasked with translating a true story into a three-act conventional narrative. What drives the story forward, after all, if not this fictional journalist and fictional quest? But there's still a difference between manufacturing a structure and taming the cynical frustration at the core of Ronson's book.
The Men Who Stare at Goats becomes a movie that's unwilling to do much more than grin and wink at you, nowhere better exemplified than in giving McGregor — who once played a young Obi-wan Kenobi — a line like, "What's a Jedi Warrior?" It's a line with an arch self-awareness from a movie that, while honest about only telling a partly true story, doesn't seem particularly interested in making sure the audience understands which part.