Opens Nov. 6, 2009. Run time: 1 hr. 30 min.
|for language, some drug content and brief nudity|
Reporter Bob Wilton is in search of his next big story when he encounters Lyn Cassady, a shadowy figure who claims to be part of an experimental U.S. military unit. According to Cassady, the New Earth Army is changing the way wars are fought. A legion of "Warrior Monks" with unparalleled psychic powers can read the enemy's thoughts, pass through solid walls, and even kill a goat simply by staring at it.
Now, the program's founder, Bill Django, has gone missing and Cassady's mission is to find him.
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The American military has always been at the forefront of technological innovation, often working on the fringes of scientific credibility in its constant search for new ways to locate and eliminate enemies. At times, the military's eagerness to gain an edge over its adversaries has led it to some strange, dark places, many of which are chronicled in The Men Who Stare at Goats, British author Jon Ronson's real-life account of the U.S. government's efforts to create an army of "psychic supersoldiers.'' If you're not familiar with the world of psychic warfare (and really, why would you be?), the book's title refers to an experiment conducted during the 1980s at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in which specially trained soldiers, using methods culled from the top-secret First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, attempted to stop the heart of a goat using nothing but the power of the mind.
The ultimate goal, obviously, was to develop the skill for eventual use on enemy combatants. Chock full of similarly wild yet credible stories, The Men Who Stare at Goats' strange-but-true subject matter lends itself perfectly to film adaptation. Its structure — a disparate collection of loosely related vignettes covering over a 30-year timespan — does not. Nevertheless, director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gave it a shot, refashioning the material to such an extent that the movie is no longer "based upon" Ronson's book but instead merely "inspired by" it. Thankfully, Heslov kept intact two of the book's greatest strengths: its lively, irreverent tone and its fascinating array of colorful characters.
The latter is no doubt what attracted the film's star-studded cast, led by George Clooney as Lyn Cassady, a fidgety veteran of the "psychic spy" brigade whose chance meeting with journalist Bob Wilton, Ronson's onscreen counterpart (played as an American, ironically, by U.K. actor Ewan McGregor), provides the catalyst for the storyline. As Cassady squires Wilton through the Iraqi desert en route, he claims, to a contracting gig, he regales the awe-struck reporter with stories of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age acolyte named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). In the early '80s, Django, now a ponytailed flower child, managed to obtain Army approval to spearhead a pilot program that would to train a legion of "warrior monks" to read minds, pass through walls and disable enemies through a wide variety of non-lethal methods.
Any program like the New Earth Army is bound to attract its share of bad apples, amoral folk who aim to use its teachings to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the entire rotten orchard is represented by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a sleazy, manipulative charlatan whose devious machinations ultimately serve to bring down the entire operation. Goats is at its loopy best as Cassady cycles through various off-the-wall anecdotes of Django and his increasingly bizarre training methods. But it falls apart when Heslov attempts to weave it all into a coherent storyline, complete with a climax centered on a hairbrained scheme to spike the water supply at an American fort with LSD. It's understandable that Heslov felt compelled to invent something that could bring some resolution to the story, but getting everyone high on acid? It sounds like a gimmick stolen from one of the lesser Revenge of the Nerds sequels.
Needless to say, that last part wasn't in Ronson's book. Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.-Thomas Leupp.
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