TORONTO - In

The Men Who Stare at Goats

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Jeff Bridges

plays Bill Django, a military man who returns from Vietnam to embrace the '60s counterculture headlong - the whole Aquarian Age, flower power, altered states of consciousness thing.

But rather than drop out of the Army, Django is allowed by the Army to train a new squad of men: a group of would-be warrior monks who employ psychic powers to slay, but preferably sway, the enemy.

The movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and opens at theaters Friday, is an inspired and nutty affair that also stars George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor. Based on the (yes) nonfiction book about government paranormal intelligence ops, The Men Who Stare at Goats is no less loopy than Bridges' character: a tie-dyed mystic, a pot-smoking visionary.

"I'm a product of that age, that era," says Bridges, who turns 60 next month. "You know, I did a lot of things that folks did back in the '60s and '70s."

One of those things was hanging out with John Lilly, the psychedelicized philosopher famous for exploring man-dolphin communication and developing the isolation tank.

"I was a buddy of John's," says Bridges, in Toronto for the premiere. "I was one of his subjects in the isolation tank, he studied my responses to it. . . . So when it came time to do The Men Who Stare at Goats, I really looked back into that part of my past."

Fans of The Big Lebowski, the 1998 Coen brothers cult phenom in which Bridges stars as the stoner sleuth the Dude, would say Bridges brought plenty of that character to Bill Django, too.

"I wasn't really thinking of the Dude when I was doing this, I was going for a different thing," he says. "But I can see how people would think that."

Bridges, son of actor Lloyd and brother of actor Beau, lives in Santa Barbara when he's not working, although lately he's been working a lot. In a succession he cannot now remember, he shot The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Open Road (with Justin Timberlake), Crazy Heart (with Robert Duvall), and The Dog Year (with a border collie named Ryder) back to back to back. And here in Toronto he's looking to meet up with Joel and Ethan Coen, who have nabbed him for the John Wayne role in their soon-shooting remake of True Grit. Variety just reported that Josh Brolin and Matt Damon are also onboard.

For Bridges, whose filmography includes The Last Picture Show, Hearts of the West, Starman, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and American Heart, an acting career seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, his first screen credits were on 1958 episodes of his father's TV series, Sea Hunt.

But Bridges says he didn't fully commit to his job until after he had shot The Last American Hero, the 1973 picture in which he starred as race-car driver Junior Jackson.

"Normally, after a movie I'm exhausted - a certain emotional muscle is exhausted," he says. "I don't feel like pretending to be somebody, I just want to be myself. And you get this feeling of 'Oh, I don't want to do this ever again.' And thankfully, I've learned over the years that that feeling subsides, and then you start to get horny to make another movie. . . ."

But in the days just after he shot Last American Hero, his agent called with an offer of a part: as Don Parritt, the teenage son, in John Frankenheimer's big-screen version of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan were already cast. And Bridges told his agent he wasn't interested.

"About five minutes later I get a call from Lamont Johnson, the director of The Last American Hero, and in his very deep voice he said, 'I understand that you turned down The Iceman Cometh? . . . You call yourself an actor? By god, I'm disgusted with you!'

"And so I decided to do a little experiment on myself. I understood that when you're a professional you have to do it when you don't feel like it, and I said 'Well, I certainly don't feel like it, but I'll just throw myself into this thing and it will probably put the final nail in the coffin of my acting career.' "

So Bridges made The Iceman Cometh, and over the course of the rehearsals and the shooting, the young actor bonded with Hollywood leading man Ryan and found himself hanging with the estimable March and Marvin.

"I had such a great time jamming with these old masters," he remembers. "And at the end of that I said, 'Oh yeah, this is something I can do for the rest of my life.' "

First Person Arts Fest. Some very strong nonfiction films are running during the First Person Arts Festival this week at the Painted Bride Art Center. The pictures include:

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring the political-minded hoaxters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (Thursday), aiming their lances at the corporate world.

Obsolete, in which author and cultural commentator Anna Jane Grossman examines the detritus of the recent past: Rolodexes, pay phones, mix tapes, and whatnots (Saturday).

The Girl From Foreign, Sadia Shepard's autobiographical doc exploring her family's mixed heritage: Christian, Muslim, Jew, American, Pakistani, Indian (Nov. 8).

William Kunstler, Disturbing the Universe, a documentary about the firebrand attorney and '60s/'70s political activist, made by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler (Nov. 8).

Still Bill, a documentary about the soulful pop, or popful soul, singer Bill Withers, of "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" fame. The screening and post-screening discussion will be followed by a live performance by Motowner Johnny Ingram and local R&B artists (Nov. 8).

For First Person info/tickets/times: 1-800-838-3006, or www.firstpersonarts.org.

History attacks Victor Mature. Not the 1966 Raquel Welch remake, but the original 1940 One Million B.C. gets screened Wednesday at Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St., introduced and outro-duced by film critic Irv Slifkin. The Secret Cinema presentation of the caveman classic, which stars Victor Mature and Lon Chaney Jr., is free and starts at 7 p.m. Filmgoers are encouraged to check out the "Dialogues With Darwin" exhibit around the corner at the American Philosophical Society Museum, 104 S. Fifth St., beforehand. For info: 215-440-3440, or www.apsmuseum.org, or www.pachs.net/dialogues-with-darwin/programs/the_secret_cinema/

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ onmovies

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