'Men Who Stare At Goats' is kind of a lousy movie, which seems almost like a mathematical improbability, given the creative weight that's behind it and the strength of the source material. But hey, stranger things have happened, I suppose. Like men who can stare at goats until the goats drop dead.
'Men Who Stare At Goats' is adapted from the whirligig nonfiction book by Jon Ronson, a cracking British journalist who previously wrote about fringe groups in the equally compelling Them: Adventures with Extremists. The book is mainly about non-lethal combat operations that were first developed after the extreme moral and military defeat of Vietnam. Back then, flush with the New Age-y teachings and borderline zealotry of the West Coast, certain military officials thought they could lead a peaceful brigade that would avoid physical combat in war altogether, instead relying on such far-out practices as remote viewing, in which viewers went into a drug-assisted trance and "projected" their spirit selves hundreds of miles away (to, say, spy on an enemy munitions factory).
But the point of Ronson's book, which starts off quite amusing and, as the book goes on, gets darker and darker, is that some of these non-violent techniques, initially delivered in a kind of hippy dippy utopian prospect, were used by the Bush Administration, post-9/11, in some really corrupt and sick ways. One great story in the book that was probably left out of the movie for legal reasons, had the military contacting Charlton Heston to be the voice of "God," in a program that would have beamed his voice directly into the heads of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. (It didn't end up happening. Maybe if it did we wouldn't have that tragedy that ultimately unfolded.)
Anyway, 'Men Who Stare at Goats' has been adapted into an awkward, slap-sticky mishmash that accomplishes virtually nothing, in terms of relating to the books. In the film, Ewan McGregor, the blandest he's ever been (which is saying something), plays the Ronson stand-in, an Ann Arbor reporter who travels to Iraq after his wife leaves him for their one-armed boss (this is the kind of "wacky" shit in the movie). While in Iraq he meets and befriends Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a composite character of some of the people Ronson ran into to, and their friendship turns into a buddy comedy but, more importantly, a skeletal framework for prolonged flashbacks into the original conception of the programs.
These flashbacks feature, among others, Jeff Bridges as a New Age soldier, along with Kevin Spacey as a vindictive contemporary of Clooney's, and Stephen Lang as a general convinced he'd soon be able to phase through walls like Kitty Pride. These sequences are some of the only highpoints of the movie and rattle with a kind of kicky, freeform punch.
It's the present that's the drag. The movie clumsily tries to reconcile the flashbacks with what's going on, which amounts to little more than George Clooney, in his most smugly cranked-to-11 performance this side of 'Leatherheads,' being a goofball, imparting exposition-y information, and teaching Ewan McGregor to loosen up while trudging through an improbably David Lean-y desert landscape.
Gone is the moral and emotional gravitas that made Ronson's book such a rewarding read. Yes, it was about deranged army personnel who convinced themselves that they could kill goats with their minds. But it was also about the corruption of pure ideas, and the way that, once 9/11 happened, nothing was safe from the nefarious purposefulness of the Bush Administration. The book concludes with the tragic, haunting incident of a CIA Agent who was testing LSD as a "truth serum" and jumped out of a window. (I believe there's a scene that dramatizes the same events in 'The Good Shepherd,' right?) In the movie version of 'Men Who Stare at Goats,' Clooney spikes a Blackwater-type private military group's food with LSD. Things get groovy.
For those looking for an insightful (or funny) view on the Iraq War and the way that a bunch of tree loving, flower wielding hippies inspired some of the most atrocious war crimes of all time, well, read the book, I guess. If you want to see George Clooney falling down a lot while Ewan McGregor just looks confused, well, this is the movie for you. You'll also want to have the ability to walk through walls, just to get away from this lousy film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Men Who Stare at Goats' is a two disc set. The first disc is a 50GB Blu-ray disc that is also Region "A" locked. The second disc is for your digital copy. It is not a full-on DVD (sorry). The disc automatically plays, with some truly unimpressive previews, but halts at the menu screen.
The disc's 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio 2.35:1) won't exactly rattle your eyeballs with its crystal clear precision. But it is fair.
When I saw 'Men Who Stare at Goats' in the theater, I was shocked to find out that Robert Elswit, the man who shot 'There Will be Blood' and 'Duplicity' (among other things), shot this movie. There were times when the image was so flat that I imagined there weren't actors on screen but cardboard cutouts like you can get at the mall. But hey. The image, at the very least, looks better on the small screen.
The small screen also works better for the movie's sitcom-y antics, and here the presentation really is quite good. Skin tones look good, panoramic vistas of bombed out cities and stretches of desert really come to life, colors are strong, and blacks deep and dark. The flower child giddiness of the flashbacks is the transfer's true strength, with everything rendered in appropriate vividness.
This is a remarkably clean transfer, too, free of any grain or debris. Additionally, there are no nagging technical issues to speak of. It's just a solid transfer. One that won't knock you out, necessarily, but will impress you with its assured solidity.
Likewise, the disc's Dolby Digital True HD 5.1 mix is nice but far from mesmerizing.
This is a dialogue heavy comedy, which means much of the action is front and center, and on that note things sound crisp and clear (and well prioritized). When the movie does open up, during scenes of war, the sound field accommodates accordingly, with some nice surround support. These sequences really come to life and it's nice to see a comedy film get the full treatment in terms of immersive surround sound (bullets zing by, roadside bombs thunder).
It should also be noted that the music, both the extraordinary score by Rolfe Kent and the music (including a large selection of feel good hippie tunes), sounds exceptionally good here. There aren't any noticeable audio track issues like pop or hiss, and there aren't any buggy technical issues I picked up on either.
Just like the video, this is a solid track that won't exactly dazzle but is still impressive.
There's only the one audio option on the disc, but there are subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired and Spanish.
There is a healthy selection of extras on the 'Men Who Stare at Goats' disc (all of them are replicated on the DVD version). Whether or not you'll want to explore them is up to you!
'Men Who Stare at Goats' redefines the term missed opportunity. I was with a critic friend of mine the other night and he was bemoaning the fact that there hasn't really been a 'Dr. Strangelove' style satire of the current war on terror. This could have been that film. But it isn't. Instead it's a clumsy, caught-up comedy that emphasizes wackiness over catharsis and slapstick over wit. But, considering the strong A/V and a somewhat endearing collection of special features (anchored by original author Jon Ronson's outstanding commentary track), this is a worthy, if not exactly goat-killingly good, rental.