If you believe the official denials, the US military has not been engaged in paranormal research, and specifically, has not been training psychic soldiers, for decades. The program allegedly known as "Star Gate" did not begin as a response to rumors that the Soviets were also engaged in psychic military research, and did not train soldiers and civilians (including spoon-bender Uri Geller) in the ways of psychic warfare. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, this goofy history (or fiction) is uncovered by a reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who tags along with a top (former) psychic supersoldier on a mysterious mission in Iraq. The supersoldier -- they call themselves Jedi warriors -- is Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and he just might be every bit as crazy as he seems. Or not.
Cassady is a master of such paranormal techniques as "sparkle eyes" and "cloudbursting" (which are just what they sound like), as well as various highly effective martial arts moves. He leads Wilton on a rambling road trip beset by the usual travails of an extended car ride in war-torn Iraq: kidnapping, IEDs, shootings. Their mission? Not even Cassady knows. Presumably, he'll know it when he sees it, or "sees" it.
Cassady is a member of the defunct New Earth Army, a New Age-y, pantheist, experimental army unit developed by a Vietnam vet named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) with the aim of winning wars through peace, love, and understanding. Bill's recruits are zealously devoted to their guru. Lyn is Bill's star pupil. Bill's most dedicated follower is wild-eyed General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). Then there's Larry Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the snake in this new Eden.
The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson. "More of this is true than you would believe," announces an opening title of the movie. What you believe, or what anyone believes, is precisely the point. Or maybe it's the joke. At any rate, the movie presents everything as if it could be true, or at least, as if someone like Lyn Cassady could plausibly believe it to be true. He did, after all, once stare a goat to death. (The goat made the mistake of staring back.)
The cast plays it all more or less straight. Clooney's got an assortment of bug-eyed looks for Cassady's various psychic powers, and portrays him as a true believer, a man who has seen too much to not believe. That's not to say that Clooney plays it as straight as Bridges, who offers a variation on his acid-etched Dude character in *The Big Lebowski*. The movie's true straight man is Wilton, a desperate fellow cuckolded by his wife and trying to pick up the pieces of his life in a war zone. Tagging along with Cassady, he's more likely to be picking up pieces of his own body.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, as directed by Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, is a mild and somewhat scattershot spoof that is not quite as funny as its title. It gets most of its traction from its charismatic actors, all of them playing broken and desperate men in search of something -- redemption? revenge? renewal? The movie does not have much to say about war, or about soldiers, or even, really, about parapsychology -- is there a connection between blind faith in one's own higher powers and the kind of devotion to country and duty that inspires soldiers? Are these guys the real deal, or a bunch of crackpots? The Men Who Stare at Goats is noncommittal -- it looks at the whole business in a semi-skeptical-but-willing-to-be-persuaded way. It all adds up to a lot of transient wackiness and absurdity that's as fluffy, and dissipates as quickly, as those clouds Cassady likes to burst.
I didn't know all that much about Amelia Earhart before I watched Amelia. I did not know, for example, that she had been married, or that she had an affair with aviation entrepreneur Gene Vidal (Gore's pop). I *did* know that she was a pioneering feminist and aviatrix, and that she disappeared over the Pacific while attempting to fly around the world. As if there was any doubt, that she loved to fly airplanes is a point made again and again in Amelia, a biopic directed by Mira Nair from a script by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan. Earhart cared about only two things in life, judging by the number of times she says so in the movie: flying and being free. Aside from having Earhart (Hilary Swank) repeatedly reminding everyone that she loves to fly and wants to be free, the movie offers little insight into her character or personality as it follows the last nine years of her life, and her rise to international fame, in a series of flashbacks intercut with scenes from her final, ill-fated flight.
Swank, looking very much like Earhart with her sandy, cropped hair, does a decent enough impersonation, giving Earhart a Katherine Hepburn-esque voice and manner, and an enormous, flashing smile. Amelia pretty quickly failed my wardrobe test -- the clothes worn by Earhart were far more interesting than anything else in the movie, including her unusual marriage to publisher/promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere). Swank, with her lanky frame and long, androgynous face, was born to play Earhart, but this is not likely to be one of her more memorable roles. It's hardly a role at all, but more a recitation of things everybody already knew about Earhart -- She's spunky! She's courageous! She's a tomboy! She loves to fly! Amelia is a thumbnail sketch that never develops into a fully formed work of art.
The plot follows Earhart's trajectory like a highlight reel: she flies across the Atlantic, is wooed by Putnam, resists his marriage proposals, flies solo across the Atlantic, marries Putnam, flies again, etc. Biographical details get tossed in as fragments of dialogue, bullet points of marital discord between Putnam and Earhart. With its odd emphasis on Earhart's marriage, there's a lot of longing and yearning in Amelia -- Putnam romances her with as much desperation and exasperation as the calm Gere can muster, and Earhart romances the skies, yearning to be free and longing to fly. She charms the world while she's at it, although I imagine she was a lot livelier and more charming herself than the movie lets on.
Amelia is, unfortunately, a long movie that feels abbreviated, not because it moves quickly -- it doesn't -- but because it is so insubstantial and rushed, hurrying through the important biographical milestones without cultivating any genuine sense of the woman. The emotion is drained from this story -- allthough Gabriel Yared's strenuously sentimental musical score works overtime to create feeling. That the score has to do *any* work to generate emotion in a movie in which the heroine dies, leaving a grieving husband and bereft world, tells you all you need to know about Amelia.