The Goats of War

Psychic spies bring slapstick to the Iraq desert. War hasn’t been this much fun since 1812

A snappy title is often a good way to get folks interested in checking out a movie. But be warned, there isn’t even a mention of a goat till the one-hour mark of this decidedly odd, supposedly based-on-fact story of the Army’s attempt to create a group of super soldiers or Jedi warriors or psychic spies or, in the parlance of one participant, “remote viewers.”

How about if we just call it New Age warfare? But first you’re gonna have to believe that sometime in the early 1980s someone came up with a hippie-dippy plan to fight wars without weapons, to overcome your enemy via thought control, to use — and this is right out of the script — “alternative combat tactics” that would cause “a lack of interest in killing people.”

The film brings us to 2003 Kuwait, where American journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, with his Scottish accent peeking through) has traveled after a broken marriage to find himself, or at least prove himself as a writer. It’s there that he meets the mysterious Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who soon opens up to the writer — bringing him along on a “secret mission” to Iraq and telling him all about his prowess with paranormal powers, such as his experiments with invisibility.

Actor Grant Heslov (Leatherheads, The Scorpion King) makes his feature directorial debut here and impressively weaves in a generous series of flashbacks that heighten storytelling aspects and introduce the film’s oddest and coolest character, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), the peace-loving, freethinking officer who created the elite program and headed up every part of the training, from driving blindfolded to walking on hot coals to swallowing amphetamines to dancing your ass off (to Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself).

This is a goofy movie with some really silly ideas, yet everyone plays it completely straight. Cassady believes he is a gifted psychic and that he can find anyone or anything... anywhere. Django is convinced that this new style of warfare will somehow save the world. Poor Wilton probably has it in his mind that if he can get a good story out of his Middle East experiences, he might win his wife back. Both Clooney, letting a little glee show through his seriousness, and especially Bridges, smoothly shifting from quiet laughter to full-out yelling, are totally convincing in their parts. But McGregor, perhaps turning up the earnestness a bit too high, falls short of his fellow actors. Maybe it’s because the word “Jedi” is used so much in the script, he’s having Star Wars flashbacks.

But after a while, the acting doesn’t matter that much, because the idea of this New Earth Army is just so downright entertaining. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Clooney and McGregor share some wonderfully funny slapstick bits or that the wry script reveals not only the “origin” of the Army’s catch phrase, “Be all you can be,” but also tosses in made-up phrases including “the quivering palm” and “Level 2 Intuition” along with the more familiar war term “secure the perimeter,” and mentions the fact that the story’s goats — yes, some goats do show up — have been “de-bleated.”

Kevin Spacey’s smarmy and villainous New Earth Army member Larry Hooper isn’t given enough time in the film to build impact. And an unnecessarily dark mood makes its way into the film near the end but fortunately vanishes before it can sink in.

The whole thing wraps up with an almost mythic sensibility, yet it leaves a kind of confusing message: It might be saying, with the noblest of intentions, that war can actually be humane.

All Sorts @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Through May 25, 7 p.m.
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