A young Ann Arbor, Michigan journalist named Bob Wilton is going through a bit of a crisis of self- his wife has ran off with his editor and he finds himself really going nowhere where he’s at, and at the start of this story, he’s been introduced to man who is a psychic and has revealed to him a story about the army trying to create a group of super soldiers using psychic abilities. In a fit of wanting to prove himself, Bob leaves the safe confines of his home and decides to go to Iraq to cover the war (this takes place between 2003 and 2004) and while there he meets with Lyn Cassady, a man mentioned in his earlier report, who reveals to Bob that he’s there for a secret mission and so Bob tags along with him, hoping to find out the true story of this super soldier program, called the New Earth Army
That’s the basic premise to The Men Who Stare At Goats from director Grant Heslov (better known as an actor and one of George Clooney’s close pals), and this is the case where you have a movie that has an absolutely terrific trailer that works for it, but unfortunately comes up way short in the end, though there are some bright spots along the way.
One of those big bright spots is the extremely high-powered cast that this has going for it- George Clooney as Lyn Cassaday, Ewan MacGregor as Bob Wilton, Jeff Bridges as Bill Django, the man who starts the New Earth Army and Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, a failed sci-fi writer with his own abilities and his own ideas of what the psychic soldier program should be about. And in the background, you’ve got some notable guys like Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick and character guys like Stephen Root and Glenn Morshower. The main cast actually does a nice job with what they have, in particular Clooney, who is absolutely doing his level best to sell this, but it still comes up short.
From it’s title and it’s casting, it seems to me that Heslov is trying to make a Coen Brothers movie in the worst way, yet never quite goes far enough. There’s a jumble of “messages” in the film with none of them ever quite coming through and a lackadaisical pacing that makes this very short movie (around 90 minutes) seem way longer than what it is. There are some bright spots along the way, in particular flashback sequences showing the origins of the New Earth Army, and some great ironic dialogue between MacGregor and Clooney near the start, where Cassaday refers to these soldiers as real life Jedi Knights and explaining to MacGregor abut that concept, with MacGregor not knowing anything of what he’s talking about (the irony of course being that MacGregor has played one of the greatest of the Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in the Star Wars movies).
But these bright moments come to little and not often enough, and where Heslov fails is in making something that strives to be more cute than cutting, and had this been a Coen Brothers film, it probably would’ve been plenty cutting. It plays it all pretty incredulously until it’s very end, and really what this should’ve had you wondering all along is that this whole thing very well could be true (stating at the start that most of the movie does have it’s basis in truth) and instead your left with a few really nice sequences, a few good laughs, but not enough to really make for something that was satisfying (at least to me) in the end.