Here’s a subject that really could have used a Stanley Kubrick or a John Frankenheimer or a Robert Altman. But are there any great cinematic satirists left, auteurs with the knack for black comedy and cold-blooded irony? The Coen Brothers, maybe — they were heading in the right direction with Burn After Reading. Or Armando Iannucci with In the Loop.
|The Men Who Stare at Goats | Directed by Grant Heslov | Written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Jon Ronson | with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey | Overture | 93 minutes|
Instead we get first-timer Grant Heslov and scriptwriter Peter Straughan, the latter of whom was responsible for How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, another caustic, subversive book by a British journalist bowdlerized into innocuous pabulum. More of the original material survives Straughan’s adaptation of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats than in that wretched earlier effort — enough to suggest what an assault on complacency it might have been in braver hands.
But instead of focusing on the bizarre and disturbing material Ronson unearths — reports of psyops, bogus Eastern martial arts, and crazy experiments that would be laughable if their consequences weren’t so awful — the filmmakers focus on the journalist himself, or rather a feeble stand-in, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). Ronson himself might have been interesting — he seems like a kind of cleaned-up, latter-day Hunter Thompson. But Wilton is a Candide-like cipher whose banal point of view permeates the film through an overbearing voiceover. A reporter for a small Midwest paper, he’s distraught when his wife dumps him, a trauma intercut with CNN images of “Shock and Awe” in Baghdad in 2003. Do I see a thinly veiled parallel between Wilton’s whimpered existential crisis and the Iraq War? I hope not. Regardless, Wilton decides to be all that he can be by shipping out to the killing zone.
That Army slogan, it turns out, was coined by fictitious composite character Bill Django (Jeff Bridges reprising, as a colleague pointed out, the Dude in The Big Lebowski, with a little bit of John Goodman’s Walter thrown in), who was also founder of the top secret “New Earth Army,” an attempt to revamp the military after the debacle of Vietnam by employing a system of post-hippie faux mysticism, psychic flim-flammery, and assorted mumbo-jumbo to create a breed of GI Jedi Warriors. Wilton learns about Django when he bumps into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, in the fun version of Syriana), one of Django’s retired but still bug-eyed acolytes, who’s in Kuwait en route to an undisclosed location in Iraq.
The flashbacks to the ’80s heyday of Django’s flaky unit make the film worth seeing — it’s M*A*S*H with hallucinogens, or The Summer of Love in camos. But the frame story set in Iraq tries to steer the easy path between brutal farce and harsh reality and ends up nowhere. Or worse — it turns out that the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere had nothing to do with Rumsfeld and Cheney but were all the fault of a jealous, delusional officer played by Kevin Spacey. Mission accomplished!
And so in the end Wilton becomes all that he can be, and this time there’s no irony. He gets his story, but when it hits the news, all the anchors get a hearty laugh out of it and then pass on to the next celebrity scandal. A betrayal of the truth — kind of like this movie.