Considering how badly this movie wants to tell us something fresh and profound about the last forty years of American military intervention, it uses up a hell of a lot of our time and patience to talk about a million other things, talk being the operative word.
Whatever stories about war and peace there might be in Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, they are constantly interrupted by the ubiquitous voice-over narration of Bob Wilton, a cuckolded journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Wilton takes us by the hand (or rather, ear) into his middle class house, his uneventful office and finally, into the living room of a crackpot interviewee, who holds forth about how a special wing of the US army trained its soldiers to develop psychic powers.
When Wilton’s life turns upside down and sends him to war-torn Iraq, the music comes on. Suddenly, young men are dancing in the streets of Baghdad, and a statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled over. It’s actual gritty footage from the invasion scored by some upbeat popular music.
Now we’re ready to find out what that ‘psychic powers’ mumbo-jumbo was all about, right?
Except Wilton never stops talking long enough for the film to become a story in its own right. Instead, he jumps nervously back and forth between his own road trip, and the 1970s, where George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey all attempt to look thirty years younger than they are.
Already greying and mature in his ER days, Clooney has the hardest time pulling off the fresh-faced innocence of a twenty-something recruit. Combine his lustrous brown ringlets with Bridges’ hippie braids and Spacey’s slimey moustache, and you’ve got the kind of hair that would show up in a sitcom episode about the time when all the characters were goofy teenagers.
But, of course, The Men Who Stare at Goats is goofy, as though it wants to turn all those worthy modern war films inside out and expose their silliness; the life of the American soldier becoming Life of Brian. Almost every scene that takes place in Iraq looks like something from another movie: vast, white deserts; crowded and dirty streets; a hundred shades of beige and meticulously applied blood, grit and sweat on everyone’s faces. Even the stark and evocative orange uniforms of Guantanamo prisoners turn up, defused a few minutes earlier by the sight of McGregor and Clooney’s bare asses in hospital gowns.
As the elaborate dating and placing of every scene tells us, the most recent narrative takes place in 2003, but this film could not have been made just after the start of one war and two years after the beginning of another.
Back then, we saw urgent outcries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), later the overly didactic Lions For Lambs and personal stories like In The Valley Of Elah, both from 2007. Today, eight years after the first American troops were sent off to Afghanistan, the wars have become a well-trodden scene, ripe for self-referencing and with nods to everything from Star Wars to The Man Who Would Be King. This is how you talk about imperialism and arrogance these days, and if only The Men Who Stare at Goats would by-pass the talking and get on with the film, I would gladly listen.