Matthew Kresal stops and stares...
There is an old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. It is perhaps no surprise then that filmmakers have often found inspiration in true events in bringing stories to the screen. In what is definitely a case of “stranger than fiction” is The Men Who Stare At Goats, the 2009 film depicting the military's attempt to harness the forces of the paranormal in the name of national security. The results, like the film itself, are quite surprising.
Going into the film, it's worth remembering that the credits state that it is “Inspired By The Book The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson”. Like many a fact based film before it, this one combines characters, events and locations together to create something that can fit more easily into a ninety-three minute package. Keeping that in mind though doesn't mean that the film is a complete work of fiction. On the contrary, many of the events shown have a serious basis in reality. These include the New Earth Army, remote viewing programs (including the specific example used in the film) and indeed the film's very title. While the more “present day” elements are certainly more fictitious than other parts, The Men Who Stare At Goats largely portrays real events within its more fictional context.
Keeping all that in mind, there's plenty of enjoy about the film as a whole. The performances throughout are solid, playing up the absurd nature of the events being portrayed. Ewan McGregor as Bob Wilton (a character apparently inspired by author Jon Ronson” is the viewer's in-way to events and acts as narrator as well as participant. George Clooney is Lyn Cassady with whom McGregor's Wilton spends much of his time with and whom we see through decades of his life in a performance that Clooney plays perfectly on the fine line that constantly leaves Wilton and the viewer alike wondering about his sanity. Much the same can be said of Jeff Bridges as the New Earth Army's founder Bill Django (based on the real-life Jim Channon) and which Bridges is perfectly cast to play. The film's supporting cast is strong as well including Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root and Waleed Zuaiter who all play up or down the comedy in their scenes to great success.
The film, as a production, is solid as well. Peter Straughan's script finds the right balance of parody, comedy and occasional seriousness which sets much of the tone that director Grant Heslov brings to the screen wonderfully. The Men Who Stare At Goats covers a large span of time from 1972 Vietnam to 2004 Iraq, a challenge that production designer Sharon Seymour and costumer Louise Frogley do a splendid job of bringing to life. If Straughan and Heslov create a quirky sense of tone, it's Seymour and Frogley who give it the sense of reality that makes it all the more incredible to watch. The result is a quirky, odd but definitely funny hour and a half.
With an excellent cast and solid production values, The Men Who Stare At Goats brings us the tale of the absurd measures that members of the US military went to test and use the paranormal with often surprising results. While not perhaps for all tastes, The Men Who Stare At Goats does prove one thing: that truth is more certainly stranger than fiction.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.