The American military has always been at the forefront of technological innovation often working on the fringes of scientific credibility in its constant search for new ways to locate and eliminate enemies. At times the military's eagerness to gain an edge over its adversaries has led it to some strange dark places many of which are chronicled in The Men Who Stare at Goats British author Jon Ronson’s real-life account of the U.S. government’s efforts to create an army of “psychic supersoldiers."
If you’re not familiar with the world of psychic warfare (and really why would you be?) the book’s title refers to an experiment conducted during the 1980s at Fort Bragg North Carolina in which specially trained soldiers using methods culled from the top-secret First Earth Battalion Operations Manual attempted to stop the heart of a goat using nothing but the power of the mind. The ultimate goal obviously was to develop the skill for eventual use on enemy combatants.
Chock full of similarly wild yet credible stories The Men Who Stare at Goats’ strange-but-true subject matter lends itself perfectly to film adaptation. Its structure — a disparate collection of loosely related vignettes covering over a 30-year timespan — does not. Nevertheless director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gave it a shot refashioning the material to such an extent that the movie is no longer “based upon” Ronson’s book but instead merely “inspired by” it.
Thankfully Heslov kept intact two of the book’s greatest strengths: its lively irreverent tone and its fascinating array of colorful characters. The latter is no doubt what attracted the film’s star-studded cast led by George Clooney as Lyn Cassady a fidgety veteran of the “psychic spy” brigade whose chance meeting with journalist Bob Wilton Ronson’s onscreen counterpart (played as an American ironically by U.K. actor Ewan McGregor) provides the catalyst for the storyline.
As Cassady squires Wilton through the Iraqi desert en route he claims to a contracting gig he regales the awe-struck reporter with stories of the New Earth Army and its founder a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age acolyte named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). In the early '80s Django now a ponytailed flower child managed to obtain Army approval to spearhead a pilot program that would to train a legion of “warrior monks” to read minds pass through walls and disable enemies through a wide variety of non-lethal methods.
Any program like the New Earth Army is bound to attract its share of bad apples amoral folk who aim to use its teachings to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. In The Men Who Stare at Goats the entire rotten orchard is represented by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) a sleazy manipulative charlatan whose devious machinations ultimately serve to bring down the entire operation.
Goats is at its loopy best as Cassady cycles through various off-the-wall anecdotes of Django and his increasingly bizarre training methods. But it falls apart when Heslov attempts to weave it all into a coherent storyline complete with a climax centered on a hairbrained scheme to spike the water supply at an American fort with LSD. It's understandable that Heslov felt compelled to invent something that could bring some resolution to the story but getting everyone high on acid? It sounds like a gimmick stolen from one of the lesser Revenge of the Nerds sequels.
Needless to say that last part wasn’t in Ronson’s book.
We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) never aspires to become one of the youngest people ever to make the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List--it just kind of turns out that way. His adventures begin in 1967 when he runs away from home at 16 just as his parents are divorcing. He finds himself alone in the Big Apple unsuccessfully trying to cash fake $20 checks. One day Frank notices how much respect is given to two airline pilots and he decides impersonating a Pan Am co-pilot might be just the ticket so to speak. Thus begins his brilliant three-year run as a master of deception. After infiltrating Pan Am he changes careers--he's a pediatrician then a lawyer--all the while perfecting his forgery skills. Cashing fake checks all over the country Abagnale amasses millions and quite literally becomes a kid in a candy store buying sports cars and fancy suits losing his virginity and pretending he is James Bond. Still the fact remains Frank is just a kid. Even after all these adult experiences his main objective is to get his father Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) a down-on-his-luck store owner hounded by the IRS back together with his now-remarried mother (Nathalie Baye). Frank's nefarious activities eventually catch the authorities' attention and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) a no-nonsense FBI agent in charge of the bank fraud division is soon hot on Frank's tail. But Frank doesn't mind. Part of him wants to get caught and he baits Hanratty to never give up the chase. Hanratty never does and finally brings his man to justice.
Catch Me's acting ensemble shines. Given the fact DiCaprio is in two high-profile movies this holiday season--this one and Gangs of New York--puts the actor back on the radar after a hiatus (perhaps he was licking his wounds after starring in the disastrous 2001 The Beach). Yet if you were to match the performances DiCaprio's stellar turn as Abagnale definitely stands out as the better of the two (the Golden Globes feel the same recently giving DiCaprio a nod for best actor in a drama). He fits the part like a glove--all at once charismatic childish vulnerable and deadly intelligent. DiCaprio easily shows how Frank isn't necessarily a sociopath but more a needy kid looking for acceptance. Say what you will about DiCaprio's movie star qualities he still has the acting chops to make it work. Walken as Frank Sr. also gives one of the better performances of his career playing a sad man who knows the apple doesn't fall from the tree but who is too proud to admit his mistakes--even to his son. Hanks is superb as well (is there anything this man can't do?) playing the by-the-book Hanratty completely devoid of emotion--but making us laugh anyway every time he comes on the screen. He doesn't mean to of course but to see Hanks play something so obviously straight somehow brings out the humor in the situation even more. Just don't ask Hanratty to tell you a joke. TV's Alias honey Jennifer Garner also makes a nice cameo as a prostitute--watch out folks she's heading for the big screen.
Based on the real-life memoirs of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. Catch Me If You Can is a fascinating study of a brilliant mind which isn't by nature criminal--just slightly misguided (ironically the real Abagnale now in his 50s is a legitimate businessman who also acts as an consultant for the FBI's bank fraud division). Under the skillful hands of director Steven Spielberg Catch Me has a great deal of fun going for a very '60s tongue-in-cheek Pink Panther feel from the opening credits to the ease at which Frank goes about his merry way conning everyone including himself. The motto of the film has to be "never deny." Frank accepts everything and things just fall into his lap. Even when Frank tries to tell the truth to the father (played by Martin Sheen) of a woman he wants to marry it works to his advantage. Yet the meat of the film is Frank's inner turmoil at the breakup of his parents of wanting his family back together again and of his need to come clean. Frank secretly wants to be disciplined told what to do and that's why Hanratty becomes so important almost a fatherly figure to him. The film probably plays about a half hour too long especially in explaining what happens to Abagnale after he gets caught but otherwise it totally engages you.