The Men Who Stare At Goats
by Jef Burnham
Available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment on March 23, 2010.
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The Men Who Stare At Goats is not as wildly funny or Coen Brothers-esque as the film’s cover art would have you believe. Much of the film feels forced and most of the characters are paper-thin at best, leaving you with little vested interest in the film’s conclusion. It also feels as though the filmmakers never really chose whether or not they were to take the seriously American soldiers’ claims of possessing psychic powers seriously, the result of which again sullies the intentions of the film’s climax and resolution. This is not to say that it is all bad though. Aside from the true story on which the film was based being immensely fascinating, the film does provide an occasional big laugh marked by sporadic chuckling. The film also boasts a brilliant cast, featuring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor (who unfortunately plays the thinnest character of them all).
The film is about a battalion of psychic spies assembled by the U.S. military is bizarrely, and, as the film’s opening indicates, more of the story is true than you’d believe. Unfortunately, and this is the primary reason you wouldn’t believe it, most fictionalized parts of the story are unconvincingly flat. Take for instance, Ewan McGregor’s reporter character, Bob, who, though standing in for the author of the book The Men Who Stare At Goats, is almost completely fictionalized, providing constant superfluous narration and never really coming off like a real person. Nor does his trip to Iraq with a former military psychic played by Clooney feel plausible or convincingly dangerous, even when they are kidnapped by insurgents. However, the flashbacks, which more closely follow the actual events of the formation of the First Earth Battalion (renamed the New Earth Battalion for the film) and the training of psychic spies are not only far more plausible and intriguing, but provide the majority of the film’s successful jokes. Obviously Hollywood’s penchant for spicing up true stories to make them more palatable to audiences is not always a good idea, especially when the source material is already so fantastic.
That being said, the best part about the DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film is the audio commentary with Jon Ronson, the reporter who authored the book on which the film is ever-so-loosely based. Ronson’s dialogue about the realities of the First Earth Battalion and all the material that the filmmakers left out is sadly but rightfully far more interesting than the film itself (excluding Clooney’s terrific comic performance that is). The experience left me feeling that perhaps Ronson’s book would have made a better documentary than a fictional narrative. And cue the featurette, “Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion,” a short documentary feature in which the real-life psychics themselves recall some of the events that inspired Ronson’s book. Sadly, this documentary is only about 12 minutes long.
Other special features include a making-of featurette, an additional audio commentary with director Grant Heslov, character bios and about 4 minutes of deleted/extended scenes. The Blu-ray release also includes a digital copy of the film.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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