DVD Review: The Men Who Stare At Goats
by Darren Goodhart
Published: March 22, 2010
A young Ann Arbor, Michigan journalist named Bob Wilton is going through a bit of a crisis of self. His wife has run off with his editor and he finds himself really going nowhere where he's at. At the start of this story, he's been introduced to man who is a psychic and has revealed to him a story about the army trying to create a group of super soldiers using psychic abilities. In a fit of wanting to prove himself, Bob leaves the safe confines of his home and decides to go to Iraq to cover the war (this takes place between 2003 and 2004). While there, he meets with Lyn Cassady, a man mentioned in his earlier report, who reveals to Bob that he's there for a secret mission. Bob tags along with him, hoping to find out the true story of this super soldier program, called the New Earth Army.
That's the basic premise to "The Men Who Stare At Goats" from director Grant Heslov (better known to me as an actor and one of George Clooney's close pals). The trailer for this was absolutely terrific, looking like a comedy with a little something on the ball. When I saw it theatrically, I was a little underwhelmed, though I still thought it had it's bright spots. I thought it played a lot better (at least for me) at home on the second viewing. It also helps that Anchor Bay has actually made a little package of the DVD release, which certainly adds to the appreciation.
This is an adaptation of Jon Ronson's book of the same title, telling the story of the First Earth Battalion, a very real initiative from the military to think outside of the box. The character of Bob Wilton and his journey of self-discovery is what's fictionalized here, but the details around the First Earth Battalion are in fact based directly off of things that are covered in Ronson's book. This is pretty interesting stuff and I think it makes for the better parts of the movie.
Another of the better parts is the extremely high-powered cast. George Clooney as Lyn Cassaday, Ewan MacGregor as Bob Wilton, Jeff Bridges as Bill Django (the organizer of the New Earth Army), and Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, a failed sci-fi writer with his own abilities and his own ideas of what the psychic soldier program should be about. In the background, you've got some notable guys like Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick and character guys like Stephen Root and Glenn Morshower. This cast is first rate, and you can tell that they had a good time with this. In particular, George Clooney is just terrific. He plays this totally straight and thus lends this a lot of gravity.
For a short movie (94 minutes), it's pacing is pretty slow. I thought that hurt it a little in the theatre, but at home it works a lot better. The flashback sequences around the creation of the New Earth Army are terrific. One of the scenes near the start features an extended conversation between Clooney and MacGregor that's pretty entertaining, more for it's irony than anything else. Cassaday refers to the soldiers as real life Jedi Knights and as he tells Bob about this, Bob has no clue as to what the Jedi Knights are. Of course Ewan MacGregor has played one of the greatest of the Jedi's in the "Star Wars" movies. One of the things that we find out in the commentaries though is that this was just pure coincidence when MacGregor was cast in the film.
Where this still lacks for me is in getting Cassady and Wilton to where they're going and making some attempts at subtle commentary on the war with Iraq. They do help with Lyn demonstrating his abilities, but still seem to slow things down. On my second viewing though, overall I thought this was a pretty pleasant diversion.
Anchor Bay's package is pretty nice. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen with it's 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the sound quality is very nice. Supplemental materials include two featurettes, some deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, character bios (which are pretty much alternative trailers) and two commentary tracks. The first featurette, "Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion," is very nice, though very short (about 12 minutes). This features some interview snippets with the men who Ronson interviewed for his book. I have to say, I wish this were much longer; I thought it was very interesting and I really wanted to hear more from the men involved. The second featurette, "Project 'Hollywood': A Classified Report From The Set" is even shorter (about 7 minutes) and it's typical Electronic Press Kit stuff. It features short interview snippets with most of the cast (George Clooney is absent from this) talking about the fun they had making this movie.
As I've said in previous DVD reviews, I'm a big fan of commentary tracks and the two included here aren't bad at all. The first one is from director Grant Heslov and he does a pretty decent job of trying to fill in details of the making of the movie while keeping up with the scenes. I was particularly surprised at just how much digital work was done here, and fortunately, Heslov readily points it all out. The second commentary track is from the book's author, Jon Ronson. Ronson basically tells you what's real and what isn't in the film and he certainly lights up when the real things come up. Ronson's pretty soft-spoken though, so I'd suggest turning up the volume a little when listening to his track.
I certainly thought that "The Men Who Stare At Goats" was much more entertaining for me at home than it was theatrically, though it's still a little lacking in some areas. It's more cute than cutting, but still has a lot of good moments and a very good cast. Anchor Bay's package is pretty nice and though the featurettes are pretty short, the commentary tracks are terrific and certainly gave me more of an appreciation for the actual movie. It's hard for me to say to just run right out and buy this (unless of course you're a bigger fan of the movie than I was -- if that's the case, it's worth it). As a rental though, it's certainly worth seeing.