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Men Who Stare at GoatsWar is no joke

There is an absence at the heart of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which weakens the effect of brilliant comic performances from George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. Review by Penny Cole.

The Men Who Stare at Goats holds up to ridicule the scary insanity of the US military and sends out a nostalgic message for a return to the peace and love principles of the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

It explores attempts from the 1960s up to the present day to develop super-soldiers who can read the enemy’s thoughts, generate cloaks of invisibility and walk through walls.

You might think that’s the fictional part of the film, but no, the US army’s war on the laws of physics really did begin back then, and is still going on today.

The scenario was researched by documentary writer Jon Ronson in his book of the same name which forms the basis of the film. He revealed the real life existence at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, of the First Earth Battalion, renamed the New Earth Army for the film.

Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), is desperate to establish himself as a front-line hero reporting on the Iraq war. Instead he ends up on a road adventure through dangerous desert with the hilarious Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) undercover as a waste paper bin salesman on the way to a trade fair in Baghdad, but actually a veteran “Jedi warrior” of the New Earth Battalion.

Through flashbacks we trace the battalion’s bizarre history, led by hippy in uniform Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). Using “peace to end war”, they worked on techniques such as “sparkly eyes” that would greet and “disarm” the enemy.

When they can’t quite make themselves invisible, they just try to find ways of not being seen. “Isn’t that just camouflage,” asks a sceptical Wilton. Cassady is too busy trying to break up a cloud with his thought rays to avoid disaster.

We discover that all was peace and love at Fort Bragg until the arrival of villainous Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). And when Cassady, Django and Hooper meet again it is in modern Iraq, at a secret camp where Hooper is putting his “dark side of the force” methods at the service of “the war on terror”.

The list of projects Hooper’s team is engaged in is extremely funny. And then you remember that the methods developed by the current day, real life exponents of psychological warfare are being used to torture real people in secret camps across the world and that Guantanamo’s doors are still open. And then it just isn’t funny any more.

And that’s the absence at the heart of the film. To make these jokes work there needs to be fury at the heart of the comedy.

One scene in Hooper’s desert base, opens with a homage shot of the mess tent in the movie Mash, and that just serves to underline the fact that what this film lacks is the hard-edged anger that inspired truly great anti-war satires like Mash, Catch 22 or Oh What a Lovely War.

Still you can’t argue with the idea set up on the film’s closing shot that it is time for Americans to start making superhuman efforts to end the “war on terror” and find a new route towards peace.

17 November 2009

The men who stare at goats, directed by Grant Heslov, screenplay Peter Straughan from Jon Ronson’s book of the same name, on general release now.

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