“The Men Who Stare at Goats”, starring and produced by George Clooney, is an adaption of Jon Ronson’s 2004 nonfiction book about alleged psychic experiments conducted by the U.S. military. Like “The Informant!”, another Clooney-produced movie, “Goats” is ostensibly based on true events, but has clearly stretched the facts for the sake of getting laughs. The movie aims to be a “Catch-22” or “Dr. Strangelove” style spoof of the absurdities of military bureaucracy, but ultimately it’s more of a gentle, loving send-up than the sharp satire it could have been.
Ewan McGregor is Bob Wilton, a stand-in for author Ronson, who’s a down on his luck newspaper reporter in Michigan. Wilton’s wife has left him for another man (who wears a prosthetic arm apparently borrowed from Dr. No), and he’s not exactly getting the plum assignments these days. For one of his stories, he interviews an eccentric guy (Stephen Root) who claims he killed his hamster just by staring at it. He learned these techniques in the military, he explains, from a man named Lyn Cassady.
Cut to 2003, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is in full swing. In a desperate attempt to impress his estranged wife, Wilton tries to get a gig as an embedded reporter in the war zones, but ends up stuck in his Kuwait City hotel room. One night at the hotel bar, he happens to run into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), now a contractor trying to win a bid to help rebuild Iraq. But a doodle in Wilton’s notebook inspires Cassady to reveal a deep, dark secret: He has superpowers.
Cassady claims that during his time in the Army, he learned how to clairvoyantly view things from a distance, kill enemy soldiers with his mind, and pass through walls. In addition, his powers work best when he’s listening to classic rock. Specifically, Boston. Cue half a dozen iterations of “More Than a Feeling” before the movie ends.
Cassady says he’s been reactivated, and is sneaking into Iraq on a covert mission. Wilton tags along, and as they journey through the desert, the movie flashes back to the 1980s and the story of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who has a vision that inspires him to found a secret military unit called the New Earth Army. Informally known as the “Jedi Masters”, the men smoke dope, have long hair, and are dedicated to ending war with their minds. Among the New Earth Army’s recruits are Cassady and a man named Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who both vie to be the unit’s star psychic.
When an experiment with LSD goes horribly wrong, Django is discharged, and the brass takes over, intending to use the psychic research for more sinister purposes. They want to know if soldiers can kill enemies with their minds, so they import herds of goats to test the hypothesis. In the present, Cassady confesses to killing a goat just by staring at it, which he thinks put a curse on him and led to his current tragic predicament.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is amusing enough, with just enough laugh out loud moments to maintain interest, even though there are a few too many obvious slapstick gags aimed at getting cheap laughs. The film invites comparisons to “Three Kings”, another comedy that saw George Clooney as a military man wandering the Iraqi desert. But whereas the black humor of “Three Kings” eventually gave way to deeper examinations of the horrors of war, “Goats” is more than happy to stay at a superficial, harmless level and settle for just being mildly funny.
When Cassady explains to Wilton that his unit was known as the “Jedi Masters”, Wilton asks, “What’s a Jedi master?” The joke being, of course, that Ewan McGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi, the most famous Jedi master in the Star Wars universe.
I have to wonder if McGregor was hired solely to provide that meta-joke, because the role forces him to put on his American accent, which is atrocious. McGregor is a great actor when he’s doing his normal Scottish accent, but when he tries to speak American, he ceases to exist. One wonders why he even needed to be American here, given that Jon Ronson, the book’s author, is Welsh.
But Clooney, Bridges, and Spacey (who despite top billing, only shows up for a few minutes) are all in fine form. What’s missing from “Men Who Stare at Goats” is any sense of scope. How seriously were these psychic experiments taken? Did anyone in a real position of authority ever really believe soldiers could kill the enemy with their minds? And what does it say about the U.S. military when such ridiculous ideas are allowed to flourish?
“Goats” could have been a biting satire of what happens when military groupthink runs amuck, but the movie never goes in for the kill. The material should have been a lot sharper and a lot funnier, but in the end, it’s a pleasant and occasionally hilarious way to while away 90 minutes.
Grant Heslov (director) / Peter Straughan (screenplay), Jon Ronson (book)
CAST: George Clooney … Lyn Cassady
Ewan McGregor … Bob Wilton
Jeff Bridges … Bill Django
Kevin Spacey … Larry Hooper
Stephen Lang … Brigadier General Dean Hopgood
Robert Patrick … Todd Nixon
Waleed Zuaiter … Mahmud Daash
Stephen Root … Gus Lacey
Glenn Morshower … Major General Holtz