The Men Who Stare at Goats

Release Date: November 6, 2009

That goat is totally going to butt him.

On the Big Board
Position Staff In Brief
5/38 John Seal Best military comedy since Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
32/169 Max Braden In the strange-but-true category, I found Confessions of a Dangerous Mind funnier and more creative.

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I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong. I was thoroughly unimpressed with George Clooney’s gradual transition to film when I became aware of his casting in From Dusk Till Dawn. At the time, I took the cynical view, assuming that he was simply trying to cash in on his breakout success as the Prettiest Doctor in Chicago and would soon leave ER and the world of television for a less than stellar stint in the choppy waters of cinema. Not only did I have him confused with another cast member, I was dead wrong about Clooney himself. In fact looking back to 1996, Clooney has built an eclectic and diverse filmography in which sixty percent of the movies in which he has starred have beaten their budget - and almost half of them have grossed more than $50 million. He’s been unafraid to take risks, appearing not only in quirky horror films but crowd pleasing comedies like Ocean’s Eleven and edgy, intellectual thrillers such as Michael Clayton. Best known to fans as a handsome leading man and good citizen, Clooney is capable of carrying a film on his own, but he’s at his best when part of a strong ensemble cast of equal talent and he clearly realizes this. He’s positioned himself within a sub-caste of actors and film makers whose paths often cross in challenging, unconventional material that pushes boundaries and produces consistent box office success.

But what many do not realize is that Clooney’s work behind the camera has been just as instrumental in making Hollywood a more productive and creative environment. With nearly two dozen production credits to his name it is evident that Clooney has been grooming himself for some time to take a more active role in the broader evolution of cinema. Often compared - because of his dashing good looks - to the leading men of Hollywood’s past, one might argue that it’s been Clooney’s tireless off screen promotion of quality productions that has helped bring transformation to the industry. From Insomnia to Good Night, and Good Luck to A Scanner Darkly, the creative imprint of Team Clooney has been on many of the more noteworthy and critically successful films of the last ten years. His latest effort, currently scheduled for release this fall is The Men Who Stare at Goats, the curiously named film based on the novel by Jon Ronson.

Goats is a thinly fictionalized version of what is reportedly a true story. BBC reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) crosses paths with American Special Forces agent Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who claims to be a member of the U.S. Army’s elite ‘First Earth Battalion’. First Earth’s mission is to research ways to utilize paranormal forces in combat. Their aim is to train a specialized force of soldiers who can read minds, walk through walls and wield advanced telekinetic abilities to kill with the power of thought. If you think this sounds like something right out of Star Wars, you wouldn’t be alone (In the trailer, watching Clooney tell the man who played Obi Wan that he is the Jedi is nothing short of a gut buster). Wilton’s investigation of these self styled ‘Warrior Monks’ takes him straight through the looking-glass, where he is introduced to the founder of the program, Lt. Colonel Bill Jango (Jeff Bridges, channeling his Inner Lebowski) who makes the word ‘eccentric’ seem like a trite understatement. Wilton soon finds himself in Iraq, caught up in an improbable whirlwind of madness, entangled in an adventure so outlandish you might think George Lucas had written it, except that it is reportedly a true story. It isn't widely known, but Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hellboy weren’t pulling your chain in at least one respect. The Third Reich really did conduct extensive research into the paranormal and depending on whom you ask, their work wasn't entirely fruitless. After the fall of Berlin in 1945 the allies discovered this and within the competitive global crucible of the Cold War, by some quarters the subject was taken very seriously.

Morbid historical fact aside, turning what could have been just another Oliver Stone potboiler into a witty, topical farce surely isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Men Who Stare at Goats has already been the subject of a dryly acerbic BBC documentary which explored the true life aspects of the subject, generating its own sense of humor by wryly allowing the subjects – and the subject matter – to speak for themselves. Listening to an actual United States Major General explain with a straight face why you should be able to walk through a solid wall is not to be missed, and requires precious little embellishment to be funny. But pitching the same thing to a movie audience with a Pythonesque wink and a nod requires Cracker Jack casting and smart direction. After all, this is a film whose title comes from a bizarre procedure whereby Army ‘psychics’ attempt to kill farm animals simply by staring at them! To that end, the cast of principals on this long, strange trip rounds out with noted character actors J.K. Simmons and Robert Patrick, as well as Kevin Spacey – no doubt calling upon his considerable range as commander of a very unusual prison camp. Oscar nominated writer/director Grant Heslov is a long time friend and protégé of Clooney’s, having been drawn into the same circle of influence through a number of shared acting credits as well as their creative work together on titles like Leatherheads, Good Night, and Good Luck and Intolerable Cruelty (if you want to learn the art of black humor, working with the Cohens is a good place to start). They cut their teeth together in television, run a successful production company together and have a number of ambitious projects upcoming, so odds are The Men Who Stare at Goats represents not the apex but the continued ascent of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing partnerships.

This isn’t the first George Clooney project that has in some way touched on political themes involving the Middle East, but this is perhaps the first one that’s been a comedy. The trailers that’ I’ve seen clearly indicate that The Men Who Stare at Goats will play out as a dark, ironic comedy in the vein of Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It takes a deft touch to pull off this type of humor, particularly when there’s a message behind the madness. But strictly judging by the creative team Clooney has assembled, I’m willing to bet that the Prettiest Doctor in Chicago has a winner on his hands. (Bruce Hall/BOP)

Vital statistics for The Men Who Stare at Goats
Main Cast George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor
Supporting Cast Kevin Spacey, Rebecca Mader, Terry Serpico
Director Grant Heslov
Screenwriter Peter Straughan
Distributor Overture Films
Official Site
Rating R
Screen Count 2,200 (Estimated)
Talent in red has entry in The Big Picture



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