The Men Who Stare At Goats

Director    Grant Heslov
Starring    George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, Robert Patrick
Release    6 NOV (US) 6 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


11th November 2009

Ewan McGregor, you may remember, is actually an actor, and a pretty good one at that. When he's not gallivanting around the world with Charley Boorman on a bike, getting a sore arse, he does occasionally find time to make a film or two.

2009 has seen a McGregor resurgence. He's been a Catholic priest in Angels & Demons, gets another sore arse as Jim Carrey's lover in the as-yet-unreleased dark comedy, I Love You Philip Morris, and finally, in The Men Who Stare At Goats, he's a journalist who goes to Iraq to learn about, erm, Jedi Warriors.

Bob Wilton (McGregor) is happy with his life and happy at work. But when he's dumped by his wife for his one-armed editor, Bob ships out to Iraq to flash his journalistic balls and prove to his ex-wife he can amount to something special. It's not until he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a retired soldier and psychic spy, that his Iraqi road trip really gets interesting.

[gallery]Based on the supposedly-true story by author Jon Ronson about a secret unit within the U.S Army that trained soldiers to have actual psychic powers, The Men Who Stare at Goats is essentially a buddy road movie at heart. The plot unravels through various flashbacks to the '80s that give us a run-down of the so-called 'New Earth Army' operations and how Cassady became such a big player in psychic circles. Opening with the disclaimer, "More of this is true than you would believe", it's clear Ronson stumbled upon a doozy of a story; figuring out which bits really happened is up to you.

The road movie aspect plays out with Bob accompanying Lyn into deepest, darkest Iraq whilst being regaled with tales of the New Earth Army, his hippy mentor Bill Django (a brilliant Jeff Bridges in full-on Dude mode) and the Sith Lord to his Jedi, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey). It's an odd set-up, with the present day setting being little else other than a book-end of sorts, and to showcase the apparent ridiculousness of Lyn's powers.

This strange storytelling structure, splicing extracts from Ronson's book with typical buddy movie motifs, is compensated by a strong cast who are all game for a laugh. McGregor, Clooney, Bridges and Spacey are all perfectly suited to their respective roles, with cameos from Stephen Root and Robert Patrick the mere icing on this excellently-cast cake.

Clooney is at his funniest since O Brother's Everett McGill and proves he doesn't make enough good comedies, whilst McGregor parleys a decent stab at a US accent into a role that requires little more than to anchor the story - nothing fun actually happens to him, but he makes a good straight man.

All of which lunacy seems like prime Coen Brothers territory. Instead, Grant Heslov, Clooney's Good Night And Good Luck scribe partner (and Arnie's tiny sidekick in True Lies), calls the shots. There's not a lot of flair required to retell Ronson's story and not much is shown, but none is needed when you have Clooney tacking on a fourth 'idiot' to his Coen brothers trilogy. Direction is perfunctory; casting is superb - sometimes that's all you need.

Making The Men Who Stare at Goats part fact and part fiction pays off greatly, adding a depth to the story that Ronson's work lacked and giving it a narrative thrust that, it has to be said, splutters towards the final act.

But with flawed characters you come to love and a genuine, original and incredulous true story at its core, The Men Who Stare At Goats deserves every audience's strict attention. Ewan, you've done well for yourself - have another year off on your motorbike, you've earned it.

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