London Film Festival Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

By Nick Deigman on 16 Oct 2009

After yesterday’s spectacular opening gala film, Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, the London Film Festival came crashing back down to earth today with a screening of the distinctly average ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’. There is nothing really wrong with the film (Ewan McGregor’s unfailingly awful American accent aside), but it lacks depth, beauty, or any of the artistic flourishes that would justify its position as a gala film.

This year’s festival plays host to Werner Herzog, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, and extraordinary debut features from artist Sam Taylor-Wood and designer Tom Ford; so the BFI have really let themselves down by embracing this vacuous studio tripe while under publicising some of the wonderful auteurs and home-grown talent on offer.

The film follows Bob Wilton (McGregor) a cuckolded small-town American reporter, as he travels to the Middle East to prove himself as a journalist and a man. While there he runs into Lyn Cassady (Clooney) a former member of the New Earth Army – a covert faction of the US Army founded by Bill Django (Bridges), a sort of Timothy Leary for the military, who researched mysticism, parapsychology, and narcotics in the 70s in an attempt to build an army that diffused conflict rather than creating it. Lyn, it transpires, was the poster-boy for this operation, with uncanny psychic and paranormal abilities.

We learn this history of the New Earth Army in flashbacks while Bob and Lyn are travelling into Iraq. After crashing the car, the pair are kidnapped by terrorists, and this sets into motion a chain of hapless and almost screwball events that sees the unlikely duo escaping from terrorists and imbecilic US security forces before eventually ending up at a secret military base run by Lyn’s arch-nemesis, Larry Hooper (Spacey).

Hooper, who was always more interested in the dark potential of the New Earth Army, is now a private contractor to the US military. Bill works for Hooper at the base, but he is a shadow of his former self having lost his passion and found the booze. Lyn cannot stand to see his idol falling so far from grace, and he gives up all hope of succeeding in his mission and helping Bill. It therefore falls to the previously sceptical Bob to spur Bill into action and prove to Lyn that the Jedi spirit lives on. They lace the powdered eggs at the base with LSD, set free all the goats and Iraqi prisoners, and escape in a helicopter, leaving Bob to tell their story to the world.

Evidently, then, the story is not terrible, and there is plenty of room for raucous comedy and entertaining performances. The characters are funny, and the unquestionable talent of the American actors ensures that there are some unforgettable moments and well-delivered lines. It is certainly a fast and entertaining action comedy with almost faultless pace and a well-polished structure. But ‘polished’ is not a word that necessarily fits within the remit of a festival gala film. ‘Revolutionary’, ‘memorable’, ‘divisive’, ‘completely unwatchable’; these are all words that should be applicable to a festival headliner. ‘Polished’ just means it is an easy Hollywood money-spinner that stays well clear of any boundaries; and Hollywood does not need any help from the BFI in marketing their films.

There are other qualities of the film that make it unsuitable for a festival gala. McGregor is characteristically wet, dull and useless; and I was left once again wondering how he has managed to spin out one decent performance as a heroin addict into one of the most startlingly undeserved careers in Hollywood.

Perhaps the most indefensible element of the film is the credit sequence, which shows images of the US invasion of Iraq with cheesy, upbeat American pop music playing over it. These are still some of the most unsettling news images in existence, and those events constitute one of the most heinous and indefensible atrocities and acts of terror ever perpetrated by a nation state. At a time when more and more Americans are coming to terms with the paralysing guilt they feel over these atrocities, I would love to know why Grant Heslov feels he is in a position to poke fun at the whole affair. Nobody should be allowed to create such a thoughtless and idiotic comment on the Iraq conflict, least of all a two-bit actor from Pennsylvania.

David O. Russell proved in Three Kings that you can make a funny film about the Middle East that is still socially responsible, aesthetically original, and gives plenty of space for an ensemble cast (including George Clooney) to show off their considerable talents. Rookie director Heslov has not reached this level of filmmaking, not even close, and it is a great shame that the second gala screening of the festival was wasted on this irresponsible, predictable, multiplex movie.

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