Monday, November 9, 2009

The Men who Stare at Goats: War as Psychology

The Men who Stare at Goats, one of Hollywood’s more inspired jokes as of late, is a film about how far lunacy will get us. It begins with a sergeant staring intensely in to the camera—as if to stare the audience down—before he announces that he will go in to the ‘other office.’ He gets up from his desk, readies himself, and runs straight at the wall, crashing in to it and falling over. Later, when Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) and Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) are lost in the desert in Lyn’s car, where they have been sitting in front of a road sign for half an hour, Lyn’s intuition tells him to drive east. He turns, they start going, and a bomb goes off under the car, toppling it over. These are two of many unsuccessful attempts at anything in the film.

The story that wraps around these bungles is that of Bob, a recently divorced journalist who leaves his job at an Ann Arbor newspaper in rage over his wife. He intends to join the army and go to Iraq, where he will prove himself, ostensibly to his wife, but really to nobody in particular. Bob—with his foolish dreaming and false sense of purpose-- is only the most conventional lunatic we become acquainted with in the film. After he meets Lyn, Bob is inducted in to a guided tour of a bizarre pentagon-funded program started by a former soldier-turned-spiritual shaman-turned military commander, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). The purpose of his special unit is to train soldiers to be ‘Jedi’s’; that is, achieve magical powers as a means of fighting, including staring animals to death, convincing enemy soldiers to put down their guns via mind tricks, and invisibility (which Lyn says he got to level three on). They drive off in to the desert together. Lyn claims to be on a mission. He will not go in to details.

Interspersed with their adventures are Lyn’s recollections of his past army life. How he came to meet Bill and join the First Earth Battalion is shown, as is how he came to meet his biggest rival, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who is ultimately complicit in bringing the First Earth Battalion to extinction. That so much of this is hard to take as factual is part of the tease of this film; first we can’t believe everything Lyn tells us, then we can’t believe everything that our own narrator and protagonist, Bob, tells us. But whatever portion of the film may or may not be true, some of it is genuinely hilarious. Character actor Glenn Morshower has an amusing turn as an American insurgent who picks Bob and Lyn up after their narrow escape from an Iraqi prison, playing his character essentially as Robert Duvall’s Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now cum-capitalist loudmouth. The various freeze frames of idiocy—a weaponless Lyn attacking an Iraqi simply by jumping at him with his arms spread—and a long set-piece towards the end involving an entire army base tripping on acid are goofy, honest stunts, even if they lack the irony and surrealism necessary for a true war comedy.

The Men who Stare at Goats is far more representative of the mentality of today’s younger generation than any other recent war film. Like this film, today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings know that the counterculture movements of the 60’s were complete absurdities, based on untrue beliefs and naïve premises. Yet also like this film, today’s younger generation is at least ambivalent if not cynical about the current wars America is involved in, which may never, in fact, end. The film is in tune with the self-referential cynicism of today’s pop culture as well; aside from the obvious references to Star Wars, Citizen Kane, rock group Boston and Family Guy-style flashback are all thrown in to the mix. The Men who Stare at Goats always takes itself with a grain of salt, making it an easy watch, but it’s scattershot cultural satire—of hippies, American pop culture, self-righteousness—is too roaming and broad to appeal to anybody other than today’s youth. Is The Men who Stare at Goats an anti-war film? It wants to be, but it doesn’t have the guts to be. It only has the guts to stare at us and make sure we can take a joke. What the filmmakers should have known is that, being a generation so cynical, so thoroughly bombarded with apathy and past glories, we can take a bigger joke than this.

(Goats in a tree; not from the film)