Saturday, 7 November 2009

LIFF: The Men Who Stare At Goats

After finally been allowed in by the nervous box office assistant (“I can’t let you in until the clock says five to. I’m sorry...”) and squeezing my way into the packed, beautifully-restored Town Hall, the dimming of the lights ushered in a tangible excitement at this, the opening film of Leeds' International Film Festival 2009.
But sadly, The Men Who Stare At Goats fails to come close to meeting the (by now) very high expectations of the audience: with a fantastically original – and alarmingly factual – premise, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, under the direction of Grant Heslov, had a potentially winning film on their hands. They do well to keep it lightly entertaining for (almost) the full ninety minutes, but the lack of narrative drive leaves them up against a tough one.

Jon Ronson’s original non-fiction paperback is a scoop of a story - a treasure trove of journalistic opportunity - which saw the writer/documentary maker stumbling across a ‘special’ US Army unit of ‘special’ psychological warriors, soldiers trained in the New Age-inspired ways of Jedi-warfare. A bizarre chance meeting soon leads Ronson to discover a much darker side of the Iraq war: ‘Barney the Dinosaur’ theme tune torture is just the tip of the ice-berg.

But Ewan McGregor’s fictionalised counterpart refuses to dive deeper below the surface of this potentially fascinating story. Almost no time is given over to looking at how this peace-loving ‘60s ethos spawned some of the most contrived. Yes, George Clooney’s character is one of many that become disillusioned, but what about disillusionment of the Iraqis and their 'liberated' country? The acting is funny, and often hilarious, while the characters themselves are just about likeable, meaning this film remains an enjoyable slap-stick comedy but, disappointingly, nothing more.

Films dealing with the latest Gulf War have done infamously bad in cinemas; it’s just such a shame that The Men Who Stare At Goats wasn’t prepared to tackle the subject head on.

A generous 3/5.

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