How do you know when people consider a war to be over? Is it when there's a formal treaty? When all occupying troops have withdrawn? Perhaps it's when a population resumes all normal activity? Well, actually, I think it's when it is finally OK to make jokes about it. And if I'm right, The Men Who Stare at Goats heralds the end of the Iraq war.
Strictly speaking though, the conflict takes a mercifully small supporting role in this bizarre comedy about a US military experiment to create 'super soldiers' who can wage war using the power of the mind. This experiment first began in the 1960s after it was claimed that the Soviets had begun such work themselves. It entailed many bizarre practices from meditation to Korean 'shock and awe' knife fighting, but the pinnacle of the bizarro antics was the attempt to kill a goat simply by sitting and staring at it.
George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats, playing now in U.K. cinema's.
The scariest thing about all of this is that it's true. And from this truth came 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', a spin-off (and utterly fictional) tale starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. With a cast this strong, and a premise this funny - you know it's going to be good... if (and this is a big if) Ewan McGregor can get his American accent right.
McGregor plays small-town journalist Bob Wilton. He is stagnating in his humdrum role and his steady relationship, but when a near-death experience sparks a reassessment of life by his wife (i.e. she runs off with his one-armed boss) he decides to go to Iraq. Once there he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney) who, it turns out, is a psychic warrior. Wilton is intrigued, and smells a juicy story, so he decides to tag along with Cassady on his secret mission. There's some excellent comedy moments in a kind of Coen-brothers road movie style, and Jeff Bridges' character Bill Django is even a pretty thor0ough reincarnation of The Dude - albeit with a bit more personal drive. The flashbacks to Lyn's training provide the bulk of the humour, and provide welcome reprise from the mildly improved Scots-American of McGregor as well as some excellent deadpan work from Kevin Spacey. Accompanying references to the hippie culture than ran concurrently with the psychic warrior experiment, and to the Iraq war which frames the contemporary story, both provide fuel for the filmic fire without becoming overbearing and the psychic skills themselves rarely stray beyond the amusing and into the absurd (though the McGregor-inspired 'jedi' jokes wear slightly thin). The main problem is that screenplay writer Peter Straughan (as opposed to Jon Ronson who wrote the factual accounts that inspired it) seems so enamoured with the concept that he fails to take this factional spin-off its own way, instead allowing the intrinsic humour and acting talent to drive the whole movie. So when the ending comes around there's no big finale or dramatic tension to diffuse (as in the excellent The Hangover earlier this year) and we end up tapering off into a more archetypal finish. Nonetheless, it's a genuinely funny film packed with acting talent, and is well worth 90 minutes of anyone's time.