The Men Who Stare At Goats: End as you mean to go on

It probably shouldn’t be the case, but a film’s ending is really it’s beginning. It’s the last thing in your mind when you leave the cinema; so a satisfying ending if likely to define an audience’s response to a film. Similarly  a poor one. One of the most famous examples of this is the original cinema release of Bladerunner. This film was always going to divide audiences, with its dark palette, moody atmosphere and serious themes for a sci-fi story with the star of Star Wars. Some responded well to what they saw, though – struck by the film’s seriousness, skill and depth…until a tacked on ending under studio pressure, that undermined much of went before with a happy and upbeat conclusion. It’s taken 25 years to fully fix that, with a Director’s Cut that wasn’t really, and a Final Cut that probably is. With a suitable ending in place, it stands clearly as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. A film of Bladerunner‘s quality shouldn’t have suffered so much over its last few seconds; but it did, hampered for years by a few misjudged seconds (as well as the needless narration).

The Men Who Stare At Goats is no Bladerunner, but it shares a similar problem with its ending. Its based on a non-fiction book, about the ‘secret’ psychic spy division of the US army. The unit’s story is told in flashback, as Ewan McGregor’s journalist accompanies George Clooney’s army man into modern-day Iraq – it’s a device that’s not in the book, understandably added in to give the film narrative momentum. The flashbacks tend to work better; the road movie plot is unconvincing and could have been done more simply and effectively. There is, though, a lovely light comic tone that carries the film along over the many flaws along the way. Some truly hilarious moments will live a long time in the memory – Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor are all engaging presences. This, though, is Clooney’s film, and his pitch perfect portrayal is funny, skeptical, satirical and kindly all at the same time. He is truly a master of his craft; there are few contemporary actors capable of this kind of role.

All of which makes the ending all the more disappointing. Until the last two minutes, the narrative flaws are largely ignorable thanks to the film’s good-nature, fine performances and well-paced laughs.  Up until the end, the viewer’s given just enough to make you understand why people can fall for the nonsense of psychic spies; to see that coincidences can sometimes look like more than that. The film’s conclusion, though, is a ludicrously miss-judged attempt at feel-good up-lift; it’s no less than an insult to audience intelligence and devalues so much good that’s gone before. It’s an attempt at joyful wonder, ignoring that true wonder is about undeserved grace and favour and beauty rather than achieving something patently impossible.

It could be argued that such an ending allows a more honest view of the film’s flaws; that’s understandable, but unfair. See it, but close your eyes and shut your ears for the last minute; that way you’ll walk out laughing at a flawed but entertaining comedy. If not, you’ll just feel let down.

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One thought on “The Men Who Stare At Goats: End as you mean to go on

  1. Pingback: Men Who Stare At Goats: The Book « The Blog of David Meldrum

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