WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Throwing himself into the Iraq War to escape his failed marriage, reporter Bob Wilton encounters ex-Army man Lyn Cassady, a self-styled super-soldier possibly equipped with psychic powers. As Bob learns of the origins of Lyn’s powers and the New Earth Army, he alternates between scepticism, wonder, and trying to avoid being kidnapped or shot.
Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) works for a small-town Michigan paper; but while writing disbelieving pieces about local crazies such as Army veteran Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who babbles on about psychic super-soldiers and claims to have (almost) stared his pet hamster to death, he fails to notice that his wife has fallen in love with his editor.
In a funk, Bob ‘goes to war’ but struggles to get into American-occupied Iraq, until he meets up with Gus’s former colleague Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in Kuwait. As the pair travel into Iraq, Lyn tells Bob about the US Army’s Project Jedi, initiated by his mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who saw a vision after being shot in Vietnam. With the enthusiastic support of Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) – and after many New Age travels – Bill created the New Earth Army, a unit dedicated to non-lethal combat and using psychic powers such as cloudbursting, invisibility and mind control to achieve their aims.
Lyn’s impressive Jedi powers made him the Unit’s star pupil, but he increasingly became wary of the uses to which his skills were being put, especially when he literally stared at a goat until its heart stopped. Jealous colleague Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), meanwhile, had no qualms about the ‘dark side’, whether it was using LSD on a soldier with tragic consequences, or cursing Lyn with the ‘Death Palm’. The truth about Lyn’s destiny may be less mystical, but it’s equally devastating and features an unexpected meeting with old acquaintances – that is, if he doesn’t get himself and Bob killed in Iraq en route.
The Men Who Stare at Goats offers up plenty of ammunition to its detractors. Perhaps because of the quirky subject matter, perhaps because of the involvement of Bridges (The Big Lebowski) and Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading) – or a combination of both – the film has the distinct feel of a Coen Brothers project. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but Goats does that Coenesque thing of mixing dark themes with details and dialogue that border on the whimsical, such as the explanation of the ‘Predator’ weapon and pretty much all of Bob’s marital strife – why does his wife’s lover have a prosthetic arm?
The set-up to the main action feels contrived, the coincidences of Bob meeting up with Lyn whilst doodling the All Seeing Eye stretching credibility, even if this sort of mystical destiny is the point of the film. Unfortunately, the movie never really knows itself whether Bill’s teachings have real foundation or are essentially hogwash; the chaotic climax (or ‘Bill’s revenge’, as it might be called) is juvenile, and the final images are a clumsy attempt to express symbolically a hippy-tinged blandishment – hey man, if you open your mind, it doesn’t matter if you can’t really walk through walls, ‘cos, hey, you’re kind of doing it anyway.
On the other hand, much about Goats is utterly absorbing. The film opens with a credit that claims ‘more of this is true than you would believe’, and as it skilfully shows the foundation and operation of the New Earth Army you find yourself wanting to believe in Project Jedi – given what we know about Cold War paranoia, it’s very easy to believe that such a Project was set up in response to a Russian response to a complete hoax. Goats also intelligently contrasts the innocent, pacifist aims of the New Earth Army with the cynicism of modern, corporation-led modern warfare: the gunfight between rival private security firms is utterly believable, and the Guantanamo-style horror of Hooper’s compound shows that Bill’s New-age idealism has become subverted, perverted, monetised, weaponised. Furthermore, even if Bill and Lyn’s story doesn’t conclude in particularly satisfactory fashion, Bridges and Clooney are charismatic enough to ensure that our journey with them is both amusing and affecting during the spritely 94-minute running time. Their pathos and belief in their gifts – despite occasional contradictory evidence – is funny, touching, and in complete contrast to the grim humourlessness of Green Zone. Kevin Spacey is brilliantly unpleasant, while Lang’s bug-eyed Hopgood is great fun; even McGregor, who has a tough time staking his place as the uninitiated observer, warms into the part, though a significant amount of his charm undoubtedly comes from a recognition of clever casting – who better to talk about Jedi nonsense than the young Obi-Wan?
So, The Men Who Stare at Goats will absolutely not be to everyone’s tastes. If you like your War Films loud, intense and patriotic, you’ll find this far too liberal and sneering; however, if you’re willing to embrace the unconventional and have a keen sense of the satirical – and appreciate acting so good it looks effortless – this movie offers a great deal of fun, no little emotion, and a fascinating, sly insight into the extreme edges of modern warfare. And don’t let the jokey title put you off: this movie actually has something to say on top of its attention-grabbing eccentricity.