(3 / 5)
Meet the Jedi Knights.
They can become invisible to the human eye, phase through solid objects, even kill you with a single touch (though it may take several decades to come into effect). And they work for the U.S. Army. This was the remit of the First Earth Battalion and they were real.
Exactly how real The Men Who Stare At Goats never goes into, but, even in its absurdity, the film retains a worrying sense of realism. As the saying goes, “stranger than fiction”.
Directed by Grant Heslov and based on a book by Jon Ronson, the events contained within may not really have taken place, but the framework in which they occur is worryingly believable. In the film’s pre-title sequence, the claim is made, “Mostly based on true events, believe it or not.” Even with a healthy dose of skepticism, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the purely fictional and the merely fictionalized.
The film’s title refers to the laboratory testing of these so-called “psychic spies” in trying to telekinetically stop the heart of a goat (de-bleated, of course). One such would-be goat killer is Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney and closer to the charismatic idiot Ulysses McGill of O Brother, Where Are Thou? than anything Hollywood’s most charming leading man has done since.
However, it’s one of The Men Who Stare At Goats‘ greatest strengths that you never feel particularly inclined to laugh at Cassady – despite his espousal of field techniques such as “sparkly eyes” and the combat application of a hug – more so at the culture that created him.
It helps, then, that the film takes place from the perspective of Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a small-town reporter who stumbles upon the story and who accompanies Cassady on his journey across war-torn Iraq. Cassady is apparently there as an employee of a contractor hoping to rebuild the blighted nation but whose only selling point is that they’re cheap, “very cheap”.
This somewhat unconventional road trip is inter-cut with flashbacks to Cassady’s time with the F.E.B. (First Earth Battalion), laying out the history of the American military’s investigations into weaponising the paranormal, as well as providing much-needed context for the events unfolding around them.
These tangential scenes introduce us to disgraced F.E.B. founder Bill Django, played by consecutive Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges, whose New Age philosophy is, needless to say, somewhat at odds with standard military procedure. It’s he who leads the Jed Knights’ first incarnation in community spirit, interpretative dance, and recreational drug use. It’s not long, however, before the group’s perversely peacenik routine is perverted by Kevin Spacey’s ambitious Larry Hooper, who sees the opportunity for an altogether darker agenda.
Sadly, character development takes a backseat, giving the film’s participants little chance to evolve beyond their strangely alluring archetypes. Though a political satire, both of namby-pamby liberalism and heartless conservatism, The Men Who Stare At Goats is too whimsical to be truly biting.
Despite a few nice set pieces, such as two gung-ho two private security firms opening fire on each other on the streets of Baghdad, the tone is also wildly uneven. Even as military contractor Todd Nixon, a sleazy Robert Patrick, fails to identify Iraqi civilian Mahmud as anything other than “Mohammad” so the film itself seems unable to figure out exactly what’s going on.
As such, the eventual freeing of the goats works only on a symbolic level – that of the freeing of the Iraqi people from American oversight – as opposed to dramatically.
Though hardly Doctor Strangelove, The Men Who Stare At Goats is nevertheless profoundly endearing, with a handful of decent jokes, a self-effacing performance from Clooney, and a cute (albeit muddled) political statement.