'The Men Who Stare at Goats'

A superbly written loony-tunes satire played by a cast at the top of its game.

A serendipitous marriage of talent in which all hearts seem to beat as one, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” takes Jon Ronson’s book about “the apparent madness at the heart of U.S. military intelligence” and fashions a superbly written loony-tunes satire, played by a tony cast at the top of its game. Recalling many similar pics, from “Dr. Strangelove” to “Three Kings,” and the screwy so-insane-it-could-be-true illogic of “Catch-22,” this is upscale liberal movie-making with a populist touch, in Coen brothers style. Enthusiastic welcome at Venice, likely to be echoed at Toronto, should translate into friendly biz Stateside in November.

Coming in at a tight, well-paced 93 minutes, Grant Heslov’s second feature — after his little-seen anti-corporate golf comedy, “Par 6″ (2002) — clearly benefits from his close working relationship with star George Clooney, following their writing collaboration on “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It also benefits from the dense but pacey screenplay by Brit playwright Peter Straughan, whose credits include “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” and “Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution.”

“Goats” is officially “inspired” by Ronson’s book, which accompanied a three-part docu series, shown on Blighty’s Channel 4 in late 2004, called “Crazy Rulers of the World,” tracing some of the U.S. military’s more outre ideas for policing the world, terrorism in particular. Straughan’s screenplay takes many of the stories from the book — apparently true, per Ronson, who’s made a career from recounting “true tales of everyday craziness” — and, as a way into the material, invents the character of a small-time, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based journalist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who’s desperate to get into Iraq at the time of the Bush invasion.

After a comically cautionary intertitle (“More of this is true than you would believe”) and an opening gag (repeated, with a variation, at the end) that immediately sets the tone, the first reel is thick with info and time shifts from the present (starting in fall 2002) back to the early ’80s, which are a tad difficult to digest on first viewing.

In a nutshell, Wilton, assigned to interview Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), an apparent wacko who claims he has special psychic powers, stumbles across an even crazier story: Back in the ’80s, the government had a top-secret unit of “psychic spies” who were trained to kill animals by staring at them. The most gifted of the group, says Lacey, was a certain Lyn Cassady.

Wilton heads for the Middle East in spring 2003, looking for a good war story. Stuck in Kuwait City, he bumps into “Skip” (Clooney), who initially claims to be an Arkansas trashcan salesman but is actually Cassady, who’s been reactivated and is on a super-secret black-op mission to Iraq.

As the two bond, and Wilton persuades Cassady to take him along, it’s clear Cassady’s elevator stops well short of the top floor. Claiming to be a “remote viewer,” “Jedi warrior” and several other things in between, Cassady fills Wilton in on the formation 20 years earlier of the New Earth Army, brainchild of a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age hippie, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, with goatee and pigtail).

In one sequence straight out of the Joseph Heller playbook, the U.S. military decided to adopt Django’s New Earth manual, written with liberal doses of LSD, as a new template for ways of policing the globe. “We must be the first superpower to have super powers,” exhorts Django, setting up a squad of psychics he dubs “warrior monks.”

As the pic flip-flops between flashbacks illustrating Cassady’s narrative and the present time, the pair get lost in the desert, kidnapped and traded by terrorists, and then lost again in the desert. Meanwhile, the backstory progresses to a point where one new member, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), tried to sabotage the NEA, prepping the movie for its acidly funny climax.

Incredibly dense screenplay traverses not only 20 years of U.S. military abitions, starting in the Reagan era, but also provides its own riffs on such public scandals as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. What saves it from getting dramatically tripped up by its own populist grandstanding are the leading perfs, which motor the movie far more than the messages.

As the completely nuts Cassady, Clooney anchors the movie in a beautifully calibrated demo of comic timing and sheer physical presence. More than just his nebbish straight man, McGregor has some of the best lines, slicing through Clooney’s utter self-conviction with a handful of well-chosen words. Bridges, channeling “The Big Lebowski,” fits Django like a glove, and Spacey’s appearance midway adds some welcome tartness to all the New Age weirdness.

Robert Elswit’s beautifully composed widescreen lensing of New Mexico’s deserts (standing in for Iraq) and Puerto Rico (repping Vietnam and other locations) is aces, without dominating the characters. Other tech credits, including Tatiana S. Riegel’s smoothly succinct editing, are top drawer.

End crawl stresses that though some characters are based on real people (the New Earth Army was reportedly the idea of a certain Col. Jim Channon), the movie is a work of fiction. Yeah, right.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Production

An Overture Films release presented in association with Winchester Capital Management and BBC Films of a Smoke House Pictures/Paul Lister production. (International sales: Mandate Pictures, Santa Monica.) Produced by Paul Lister, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Executive producers, Barbara Hall, Jim Holt, David Thompson. Directed by Grant Heslov. Screenplay, Peter Straughan, inspired by Jon Ronson's 2004 book.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color prints, Panavision widescreen), Robert Elswit; editor, Tatiana S. Riegel; music, Rolfe Kent; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, Sharon Seymour; art director, Peter Borck; costume designer, Louise Frogley; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital/SDDS), Edward Tise; sound designer, Mark Mangini; visual effects supervisor, Thomas J. Smith; special effects coordinator, Kevin Harris; assistant director, David Webb; casting, Patricia Alonso. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 8, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Gala Presentations.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Lyn Cassady - George Clooney Bill Django - Jeff Bridges Bob Wilton - Ewan McGregor Larry Hooper - Kevin Spacey Todd Nixon - Robert Patrick Gen. Hopgood - Stephen Lang Gus Lacey - Stephen Root Maj. Jim Holtz - Glenn Morshower Mohammad Daash - Waleed Zuaiter Debora - Rebecca Mader

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