Film Review | Sunday, 24 January 2010

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Catch-22 meets Don Quixote in Iraq

I’ve always found the heaviness of war films instantly off-putting. Gone are the days of jingoistic, uncritically patriotic Nazi-stomping (both in US and UK productions), and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when a war production comes out now, expect it to be lugubrious and preachy in the opposite direction: showing how man’s inhumanity to man is an unforgivable thing, and that it should never happen again – set against the backdrop of heart-stopping battle scenes and heart-wrenching, Oscar-baiting performances.
It appears that humour seems to be a no-go zone, which is a shame, because as Joseph Heller’s seminal novel (and its Alan Arkin-starring 1970 film adaptation) ‘Catch-22’ has shown us, war provides us with ample opportunities to take the mickey out of mankind as a whole. Hell, even the final season of TV’s ‘Blackadder’ got plenty of mileage (not to mention that it came packed with a tearjerker of a finale) out of the sheer absurdity that comes part and parcel with the warzone. Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ was a welcome change of pace, though his Westernised take on the classic war film was more of a play on genre for its own sake (as all of his films are) than an attempt to penetrate the truths of the warzone through the use of levity.
Grant Heslov’s ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ is a different beast altogether. Stitched into shape from Jon Ronson’s account of New Age/paranormal techniques supposedly employed by an American faction stationed in Iraq during the War on Terror, it self-consciously blurs the line between fact and fiction, to deliver poignant emotional truths on how idealism can blossom, even in the most abject of moral quandaries.
Our way into the so-zany-it-has-to-be-true story is the character of Bob Wilton (most probably a stand-in for Ronson himself, played by Ewan McGregor), an Ann Arbor Daily Telegram journalist who decides to go behind enemy lines in Iraq after his wife leaves him for his editor. Once there, he encounters Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a soldier who hints at a ‘mission’ and who reluctantly agrees to take Wilton where the true action is. After the two are kidnapped, Cassady reveals that he used to form part of ‘The New Earth Army’ – an insanely hippiefied take on combat first dreamt up by the shamanic Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) during the Vietnam war. As the two carry on with their mysterious journey, we also witness, in flashback, the story of the Army itself, its rise and eventual downfall.
Its very nature as an off-the-beaten-track – not to mention controversial – film doesn’t do it any favours in terms of studio support, so the cast of A-listers (doubtlessly on board because they form part of the thespian liberal intelligentsia in Hollywood) comes in very handy. There’s no question that most of them are typecast: Clooney as the Coen Brothers-weaned goofball, Bridges re-hashing, with slightly more dramatic texture, the iconic ‘Dude’ from ‘The Big Lebowski’, Avatar’s own arch-villian Stephen Lang lightening up for his role as General Dean Hopgood, and Kevin Spacey doing that slimy villain thing he does so well. But it’s the fact that the stars were willing to take a chance on such a strange project (and it is strange) that is as heartening as the hippie army of ‘Jedi warriors’ (the irony in casting McGregor is not lost) which form the crux of the story. McGregor also shines by being refreshingly inconspicuous – he plays an American convincingly and blends into the surreal background, leaving any superstar aura behind him.
The slightly toned-down pace may not appeal to all, and Heslov’s direction is not the most dynamic. But this is an anti-war film in more ways than one, and instead of focusing on the visceral damage war causes, it homes in on the sheer madness it can inspire, and the script, adapted from Ronson’s book by Peter Straughan, manages to create a universe in which hippie warriors are in fact believable. All of this is deftly undercut, of course, by the notion that it could be all fabricated, twice over: Cassady, a Don Quixote of sorts, who tells Wilton, his Sancho Panza, a story that Wilton himself will reveal to the world.
‘What is truth?’, that eternal question – which was at the core of the War on Terror – has never been so deftly asked.

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