August 13, 2010

Book Vs. Movie: The Men Who Stare at Goats

Some things are just stranger than fiction. And if you don't believe me just read Jon Ronson's book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The fact that it's a nonfiction title is astounding, because had I not known that before reading it, I'd have been sure if was utter fabrication.

When it comes the realms of science-fiction, there have arguably been more sparks of inspiration towards today's technology from books and movies than we might care to admit. The American military apparently is paying attention when it comes to ideas about mind control, teleportation, and extra sensory perception. The military brass entertained thoughts of practical application on the battlefield, but it's how they went about exploring those ideas that is awe-inspiring.

Turning Ronson's book into a movie though seemed to be a difficult task, at least I thought so. There are lots of pieces to the puzzle to the book, but there isn't an obvious plot there for a Hollywood film. It'd need a balance between satire and drama. Thankfully, the screenplay was written in such a way to focus on a couple of amalgamated characters and placing them in some of the crazier moments from the book. It also doesn't hurt to have such a strong cast, led by George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey.

Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a journalist looking for a story in Iraq during the war, and essentially represents Ronson and a throughway for the audience to see the action. Wilton meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), a retired soldier with a past in the New Earth Army, which trained in some very unorthodox methods of warfare. While the two travel through the desert, Cassidy gives Wilton a glimpse into the past exploits of the military, and even shows some of his alleged abilities like cloud bursting and remote viewing. But the deeper Wilton gets into his story, the crazier and more real things get.

It's pretty funny just to see how the two characters play off of each other, but the real comedy comes from the flashbacks involving Cassidy's training from Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a new age philosopher soldier, and the antagonism of Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) who keeps trying to upstage the rest of the trainees. Plus, there are a couple of amusing cameos in the movie from Robert Patrick as a Black Water style contractor and Stephen Lang (of Avatar fame now) as a brigadier general who tries to run through walls.

Despite whatever difficulties come from turning a nonfiction title into a motion picture, director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan do a pretty good job. They even manage to fit in snippets of Ronson's own words directly into the film, but overall the movie carries a voice of its own.

Winner: The Book. While the movie is entertaining, the ending comes off as a bit pat or bland--almost like a Scooby Doo ending, if you will. Ronson's book, while offering plenty of humor, also shows the serious side of what was going on and some of the darker elements that remained after the First Earth Battalion was scrapped. The movie is certainly worth watching for the performances from the cast, but to really appreciate the context behind the carnage, I think you'd be best off reading the book.

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