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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS"


George Clooney attempts to use the power of his mind to stop a goat's heart.
 
Paranormal phenomena are something that a lot of us do not believe in, but those who do really believe in it. I remember a grad school course I had to take on parapsychology. Our professor taught us hypnotism and how to connect with our "spirit guides" and stuff like that. I sat at my desk, astounded that such a course was even being taught, but the prof was all into it. Even factions of the U.S. military believed there might be something beyond our logical comprehension. In his book "The Men Who Stare at Goats," writer Jon Ronson investigated a unit of the military devoted to ESP and telepathy, among other things. What he discovered was that this sort of phenomena had been studied for decades, and it even led to the creation of a peculiar form of psychological torturing for terror suspects: making them listen to Barney's "I Love You, You Love Me" song on a loop for 24 hours.

In the film adaptation, Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton who, after his wife leaves him, decides to head to the Middle East in some misguided attempt at proving himself. He has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to be a former "psychic soldier" in an experimental military unit known as the "New Earth Army." Cassady is on his way into Iraq, having allegedly had his status reactivated. Wilton begs and pleads to come along, and as the two make a peril-filled journey into the country, Cassady explains to him the details of the government's paranormal studies.

In flashbacks, we meet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), an officer who founded the New Earth Army (devoted to less intrinsically violent methods of combat) after having a hallucinogenic-fueled epiphany. Django managed to coerce the government into allowing him to study how the paranormal could potentially be used to fight wars in a new way. Cassady became his star pupil, able to pass the program's highest test, i.e. stopping the heart of a goat just by staring at it. The New Earth Army hit a snag with the arrival of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a psychic who becomes jealous of Cassady's favored-son status and subsequently brings the program to its knees.

Of course, in his current mission (which may be real or just imagined), Cassady comes to discover that a version of the New Earth Army remains active, and they're still trying to kill goats and find ways to use the paranormal to fight terrorism.

The Men Who Stare at Goats has a lot going for it, starting with a premise that is difficult to resist. While some elements of the movie have been fictionalized, it's fascinating to know that most of the things that happen here are based in fact. In an age where everyone fears becoming the victim of terrorist acts, it's little wonder that the government/military would explore any possible means of fighting back, no matter how bizarre or unlikely they might seem. Director Grant Heslov and writer Peter Straughan emphasize the absurdity in it all, which allows for some sizable laughs.

The cast is also terrific. George Clooney once again chooses to work in a movie that emphasizes originality over commercialism. He hits just the right note of playing Cassady as someone who might be crazy but is still coherent enough to maintain some plausibility. I like his scenes with McGregor. Mostly they consist of Cassady explaining some goofball-sounding technique - such as the dreaded "sparkle eyes" - to a disbelieving Wilton, who then tries to convince himself that maybe these things really are possible. Bridges plays a part similar to the one he did in the great The Big Lebowski; imagine "The Dude" joining the military. Despite the similarities, he's exactly the right choice for the role.

While it has enough to recommend it, The Men Who Stare at Goats is ultimately not as satisfying as I'd hoped it would be. Heslov gives the movie a fractured structure that ultimately robs it of dramatic momentum. There are flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. We follow Cassady and Wilton in the present, then jump back to the past to follow Cassady and Django, or Django and Hoover, or Cassady and Hoover, then back to the present, and then back again, in an order that often feels random. This pattern occurs repeatedly. Ultimately the plot jumps around so much that you never get completely absorbed in the film as a whole. It's more like a bunch of really good, involving scenes that never add up to a gratifying whole.

A more linear approach would have worked. Had all the flashbacks been linked together in a more fluid manner (rather than one that seems scattershot), that would have worked too. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a very ambitious movie that tries to do something a little different. It falls a bit short of the high bar it has set for itself, yet I respect the film's willingness to aim that high. And it does get enough right to be worth seeing. Just don't expect to be blown away.

( out of four)


The Men Who Stare at Goats is rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.

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