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Film Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009; Directed by Grant Heslov)

The Men Who Stare at Goats, as advertised, is definitely an odd movie, but it’s unfortunately not nearly odd enough. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson (with a research assist from documentary filmmaker John Sergeant that goes uncredited in the film), the film deals with the U.S. Army’s covert efforts to adapt New Age philosophy, psychedelic drug counterculture, and all species of other loosely-related psychic and paranormal mumbo-jumbo to combat situations and national security applications.

The fictional conceit of the barely-there plot involves Ann Arbor, Michigan journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, employing a rare American accent that slips now and again), whose wife leaves him for his one-armed editor in 2003. Broken-hearted and eager to prove his masculine worth, Wilton decides to ship out to cover corporate contractors in post-invasion Iraq, but has some trouble getting into the war-torn country. A chance meeting in a Kuwait City hotel bar with Len Cassady (George Clooney, who sports a mustache and therefore promises to be playing an eccentric), a retired Special Forces agent on what he claims is a secret infiltration mission, gives Wilton his ticket into Iraq, but also his prized story.

Wilton recognizes Cassady’s name from an interview he once conducted back in Michigan with a former soldier (Stephen Root, as usual providing mild eccentricity to prepare the ground for more extreme weirdness), who claimed that the Army was experimenting with outlandish psychic powers, training so-called “Jedi” warriors waging war on America’s enemies with non-traditional methods (McGregor, most famous for playing a Jedi, clearly relishes his lines asking Clooney if he is one). Cassady was the most talented member of the “New Earth Army”, a unit groomed in New Age flower-power quasi-warfare by the slightly loopy Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, of course, who sells this kooky stuff better than anyone else could). Cassady accomplished perhaps the unit’s greatest “successes”: remotely discovering the whereabouts of a hostage in Italy through telepathy and, in the titular incident that still haunts him, staring at a goat until its heart stopped.

Wilton thinks Cassady’s kind of a nut, but follows him into Iraq’s danger zones anyway in search of his story. They are taken hostage by criminals, briefly tag along with bluff, bullet-headed American security contractors (who wind up in a firefight with a rival team of gun-toting corporate vultures), and eventually find their way to a secret base run by Cassady’s New Earth Army rival Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) that constitutes a neoconservative War on Terror perversion of Django’s vision for enlightened warrior monks.

The history of the New Earth Army (based on an actual unit called the First Earth Battalion) and its multitude of bizarre practices is sprinkled in flashbacks in the midst of this contemporary plot. It’s strange stuff, all the more so for being generally true, and plenty of the more out-there stuff sparks guffaws. The infamous stared-at goat was one of a hundred de-bleated ungulates smuggled into Fort Bragg from South America for training medics to dress combat wounds; a brigadier-general who supports the project believes that the Soviets are into psychic experimentation and is convinced that human beings are capable of walking through walls; and Django drills his troops with dancing, breathing exercises, and recreational drug use.

Heslov, a producer for Clooney’s much-better directorial efforts, works from a script by Peter Straughan that sees in the New Earth Army an endearing and open-minded post-Vietnam attempt to reconcile the implacable opposing poles in American public life of the time, the leftist hippie counterculture and the authoritarian military-industrial complex. The problem is that Heslov is too tentative and non-assured a filmmaker to whip Straughan’s ragged, directionless screenplay into fighting shape. The eccentric elements are amusing at first (the first frank discussion of the program between Wilton and Cassady is frankly hilarious, and the montages of the unit’s seemingly random Fort Bragg training regiment has its moments), but aren’t wedded to a larger narrative or thematic scheme. This is a film that shares its subject’s dubious grasp of the value of seemingly irrational nonsense, and this lack of focus hobbles its potential satirical punch.

The Men Who Stare at Goats does marshal a subtler connection between the fuzzy evidence supporting the unit’s mandate of paranormal warfare and the ideologically-shepherded fantasies engaged in by the Bush-Cheney Administration that led to the Iraq War debacle in the first place. Django and Wilton witness Iraqi detainees being subjected to the demented cheeriness of the Barney & Friends theme song for hours on end, and recognize it as “the dark side” of their efforts at a gentler, more positive military strategy. It’s as close as Heslov’s film gets to a more muscular point about the danger of not merely believing in things that aren’t real but conducting large-scale government policy that has life-and-death consequences for millions of people based on those dubious beliefs. But The Men Who Stare at Goats finds something mildly amusing and even appealing about these beliefs instead, and would rather have us chuckle at them than be outraged by their misuse.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 5, 2015 at 3:58 pm

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