The Men Who Stare at Goats

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George Clooney meet Dusan Makavejev: Hollywood clown to Yugoslavian art-movie satirist. Clooney’s dismal new comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats makes it essential to re-learn what good political satire means. There’s no richer example than Makavejev’s films, and three of them are now packaged in Criterion’s DVD box set, Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical.
Clooney’s among those media stars who presume that having Liberal biases make them radicals but such specious political films as Clooney’s unintelligible Syriana, the dull, dishonest Goodnight and Good Luck, the cynical Michael Clayton and now the atrocious Goats were made under pampered conditions unlike when Makevejev subverted Yugoslavia’s state-controlled film system with a series of clever, probing social comedies in the 1960s.

It’s smugness—unleavened by wit—that makes Goats so offensive. Clooney’s googly-eyed characterization as gung-ho army figure Lyn Cassady makes fun of the military with unthinking glee. Writer-director Grant Heslov (Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck collaborator) targets a covert Psy-Ops program that trains soldiers to use mind-control as a weapon—even against goats! Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) discovers this program and, from Ann Arbor, MI., to Kuwait City, follows the cartoonish tug-of-egos between an ex-hippie officer (Jeff Bridges) and a psychic (Kevin Spacey). Treating politics as a joke, Goats disregards life-and-death circumstances in favor of media-star righteousness.

Makavejev’s Man is Not a Bird, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator and Innocence Unprotected are never so dull witted as to poke fun at bureaucratic pomposity. Instead, these films (each just over an hour) observe the daily routines of Communist countrymen. But Makavejev, trained in documentary, includes the social environment, aware of the ideas and ambitions people share: How bosses manage workers, men regard women and parents treat children. He has a sense of the contradictions in behavior—the way people use each other for sex, money and personal satisfaction. These endeavors are part of the life and landscape shown (magnificently backgrounded in Man is Not a Bird); all of it reflecting but not saluting the social structures of Communism.

In Goats, democracy is taken for granted. There’s no sense of individuals searching for pleasure and satisfaction, just mockery—Heslov’s basic we/them antagonism. It’s MSNBC-style comedy; more of the snideness that has degraded political discourse in the years since mainstream media fought against the Bush administration. It comes from romanticizing 1960s counterculture attitude when rock stars challenged the Establishment. Now that pop stars have become the Establishment, media minions like Clooney pretend their simplistic political notions help liberate the republic. But the irksome fact is, Goats merely activates the consumerist reflex to laugh with any nonsense being sold (bungled warfare, office slapstick, ludicrous spy maneuvers). In short, Goats proves the death of political satire.

After 40 years, Makavejev’s films prove amazingly alert to the way that political systems effect citizens’ imaginations. In Man is Not a Bird, a worker honored for his service states, “A man’s task is to build, to the best of his ability, his own happiness and a future for all of us.” Without propaganda or irony, blame isn’t placed on institutions but wonderment is found in the complicated ways people behave. No comparable compassion is felt in Heslov and Clooney’s clowning—they lack Makavejev’s insight.

Too bad Makavejev’s films aren’t better known. They point the way out of today’s disingenuous media. Makvejev could have performed wonders on this same material through showing, with depth and heart, that credible human beings comprise the military and so are to be understood, not merely judged or ridiculed. His films combine documentary, comedy and romance to keep viewers alert to the machinations of ideology and human folly. Critic Constantin Parvulescu called Makavejev’s films “constellation[s] of ideas”—a good description for their free-ranging form and inquisitiveness. He’s one of cinema’s great unsung comic, sexual and political originals, yet his innovations have been defiled and coarsened by mockumentaries Borat and Bruno, which Left-elite critics praise as a way of securing their own hegemony.

Goats’ piddling conviction comes from the Clooney Club’s relentless attempt at imitating counterculture chic of the past—not Makavejev’s obscure genius but Hollywood narcissism. Goats’ absurdly self-destructive military stunts mimic The Manchurian Candidate and when Cassady tells Wilton, “You’re the mission, Bob. It’s your job to tell them what happened. Tell everybody what happened!” it alludes to Three Days of the Condor.

Clooney’s matinee-idol goofiness in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading is all that keeps him from being declared an enemy of cinema. He’s a bad luck charm in the avaricious Oceans franchise and Left to his own devices, Clooney has forsaken entertainment to be poster boy for left-wing sarcasm and pseudo-social consciousness. This distrust-the-military, hippie sentimentality is tedious, merely an unlyrical spoof of the military made by people who still have never served their country.

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