Men Who Stare at Goats (Review)

George Clooney satire too vague for its own good

Nov 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan adapt Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book, turning Ronson into reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who heads to the Middle East in 2003 to cover the Iraq War. Instead, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who was part of a 1980s military program launched by idealistic Vietnam veteran Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) to develop “Jedi Warriors” — soldiers with psychic abilities.

For the next hour, the narrative swings back and forth between Wilton's and Cassady’s Middle East misadventures and the history of Django’s “First Earth Battalion.” Heslov approaches both parts with the same surreal sensibility, resulting in comedy that’s often as entertaining as it is bizarre. But that same lightness becomes a hindrance to the film really going for the satirical jugular vein.

As Ronson’s true story turns, Django’s notion of warriors for peace is appropriated by a military only able to focus on applications for inflicting pain, and the film’s tone is too frivolous to permit serious contemplation of militaristic tunnel vision. It’s tough translating a true story into a three-act conventional narrative, but there’s a difference between manufacturing a structure and taming the cynical frustration at the core of Ronson’s book.

This is a film that does little more than grin and wink at you, giving McGregor — who once played a young Obi-wan Kenobi — a line like, “What’s a Jedi Warrior?” It’s honest about only telling a partly true story but isn’t particularly interested in making sure the audience understands which part. Grade: C-plus

Opens Nov. 6. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.