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.
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.