The Men Who Stare at Goats
Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is just a small-town journalist who seeks to prove his manhood after his wife leaves him by heading to Iraq during the first few months of the 2003 invasion. He's a reporter in search of a story; what he finds instead is his destiny in the form of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a retired U.S. Army-trained warrior monk who tells Bob he's been reactivated and is going into Iraq on a black op. Bob gloms along for the ride--an adventure that will see him shot at, abducted, and wandering the desert as he learns about Lyn's psychic-operative training at Fort Bragg in the late 1970s and early '80s under combat shaman Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam veteran who spent the late '70s pursuing the military possibilities of New Age enlightenment in Northern California and got the green light to create the New Earth Army, a long-haired, free-spirited unit of soldiers trained to unleash the power of their minds as weapons of peace.
Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gamely tap into the nearly unbelievable absurdities uncovered by Jon Ronson in his 2004 nonfiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats, which documents the U.S. military's ventures into paranormal and psychological research, and it makes for an amusing, entertaining comedy. The story is ripe with comedic gems--the very sight of, say, men in olive green BDUs doing stiff versions of the Grateful Dead twirl dance, or the ponytailed Bridges' wandering around Fort Bragg, produces a steady stream of chortles. And the cast understands the story's comedic potential--especially Clooney, who for once doesn't play a comic character self-aware of his funniness. Clooney's Lyn is a military man turned true-believer in Django's spiritual guidance, so much so that he feels responsible for the unit's eventual demise. He's the guy who wanders over to the dark side, killing a goat with his mind--and Clooney never breaks Lyn's devotion by winking at the audience.
Unfortunately, Goats is content with being funny. Ronson suggests how new age-y psy-ops eventually morphed into today's questionable military practices (such as the continuous playing of the Barney the Dinosaur theme song to Iraqi prisoners of war). Such ideas enter the movie, but merely to provide the main characters the opportunity of redemption. The Men Who Stare at Goats wanders into Three Kings' lunacy, but forgets the pathos, and ends up feeling like a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire that's too tentative to deliver a kill shot.