Underrated, melancholy psychic spy comedy arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
From the perspective of our post-ironic, cynical-for-hipness’ sake zeitgeist, the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s, which embraced New Age mysticism and vague iterations of Eastern philosophy, seem a little naive and self-indulgent. That’s neither a completely unfair nor inaccurate assessment. Still, before shopping malls sold ankh medallions and Tao t-shirts, millions of Americans spent years looking for something vaster and more powerful inside themselves and the universe around them, sometimes taking strange paths to get there.
To hear the smart, well thought-out The Men Who Stare At Goats tell it, even the U.S. Army got in on the act, devoting years of research and funding towards building a “New Earth Army” of psychic spies and supersoldiers that could accomplish any number of mystical feats. Based on British journalist Jon Ronson’s 2004 account of the First Earth Battalion’s long and flawed history and directed by Grant Heslov, the film cruises with a zany comic momentum interspersed with flashbacks explaining the Battalion’s sad, doomed history. It’s chiefly a road movie in the desert, starring America’s leading man George Clooney as a Battalion veteran and Ewan McGregor as the hapless, cuckolded reporter following him in hopes of a story as well as other things he seems at a loss to pinpoint.
Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, once the star pupil of Battalion founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam veteran who went to investigate the counterculture on behalf of the Army and came back a convert to all its trippy teachings. Cassady was a “Jedi Warrior,” he tells reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor), one of a vanguard of soldiers who would conduct war by embracing peace. The two meet in Kuwait, as Cassady prepares to embark on a “secret” mission into the Iraqi desert. Wilton follows, becoming both straight man, witness, and eventual disciple of Cassady’s eccentric behavior.
The road they follow is tough: the two are kidnapped, blown up, rescued by a trigger-happy American security company, and eventually brought to the base camp for the Army’s current version of psychological warfare. This modern program involves subliminal messages put into music for our own soldiers and torturing detainees with the theme song to Barney the Dinosaur. The camp is directed, it turns out, by fellow New Earth Army veteran Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who years before had selfishly put the whole project on the path to ruin. Django is also present, albeit a drunken and weary version of his former self. As Cassady endures a crisis of faith in his life’s work, Wilton and Django set about “liberating” the camp using huge amounts of LSD.
The film works best when its manic comic momentum carries it forward, effortlessly moving between Cassady’s desert roamings to the Battalion’s salad days and back again. There’s a third-act twist into some potentially dark territory that thankfully never quite materializes, while the final resolution comes across a bit pat and a little too easy. Everything that happens therein is funny enough, as far as drug humor goes, especially involving Spacey’s climactic act of confrontation. As a running gag, telling McGregor – who possibly wishes we’d all forget his participation in the Star Wars prequels – about Jedi warriors is funny in a meta kind of way the first ten times the script does it. After that the laugh factor starts to wane.
But anyone expecting a point to the movie, or a theme, shouldn’t look to the plot but instead to the performances, Clooney’s and Bridges’ in particular. McGregor is a capable straight man to them both, but the two actors inject a feeling both of loss and regret into their roles, playing men who devoted their life to something that may actually have been hogwash all along. Cassady carries a bad secret around with him, and Django has let his faith collapse into despair. It’s tempting, but maybe a little simplistic, to see the present-day Django as Bridges’ beloved Dude Lebowski after eight years of war and terror: nervous, tired, aching for a vanished serenity. He’s not abiding so well after all.
Likewise, Clooney gives his best performance since Syriana in a film that bookends his 1999 Desert Storm adventure Three Kings. Apparently borrowing Dennis Farina’s moustache and stripped down physically to not much more than leathery skin and sad eyes, Cassady is a dying shell of a man whose true motivations for going into the desert are less enlightened than he wants Wilton to believe. What’s left of Cassady, like Django, is a relic of a more optimistic time, and Clooney expresses this with half-completed sentences, almost adolescent self-righteousness, and a patience with Wilton that borders on condescension. Faced with death and despair, his leap of faith towards Django and their lost, futile ambitions becomes a defiance to a world that’s left them both behind.
At least, that’s one interpretation. The obvious symbolism here is of a holy man wandering the desert looking for his teacher, the desert in this case being a combat zone filled with shoot-first countrymen and Iraqi criminals bent on kidnapping. Yet the film’s biggest weakness lies in not bringing those ideas to the surface or fleshing them out as much as they deserve. Heslov moves the script along, possibly too fast to explore the issues raised by those central performances, with a result that’s not everything it could be. That’s a shame. A film that took a closer look at such ideas in a modern American setting would really be something to stare at.
- Michael Kabel
Note: A previous version of this review originally appeared for the film’s theatrical release.