“Is this really based on facts?” a fellow critic asked the studio rep at the screening I attended of this film. “Does it matter?” I asked in response, and I was right, it doesn’t. Whether it’s true or just a riff on the craziness of modern military and contemporary culture, it turns out that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a witty and engaging satire in the same vein as the classic war films M*A*S*H, Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22.
The tone of the film also reminded me of Matt Damon’s witty The Informant! where part of the fun is the astonishment we, the audience, have at how seriously the characters in the film take the unfolding storyline. The premise? That in the 1970’s the U.S. Army funded a squadron of psychic warriors trying to create supermen, men who could fight purely with their minds, the New Earth Army.
The squad leader is Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a gray-haired hippie with a long braid and a great 70’s iconic light brown fringed leather jacket, and the squad includes star psy-warrior Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) and frustrated sci-fi writer Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, in one of his best roles since The Usual Suspects).
Decades later, it’s Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who has stumbled into the story by interviewing former New Earth Army member Gus Lacey (Stephen Root). During the interview, Lacey shows Wilton a video of him killing his hampster with just the power of his mind. Except, well, it’s about then that you realize you’ve just jumped onto a satirical roller coaster…
I really enjoyed The Men Who Stare At Goats and found that it kept me chuckling as it unspooled. If you go into the theater expecting a serious film — for whatever reason — you’ll probably find this a bit bizarre, but if you can appreciate satire, you’ll agree that Clooney and team have another hit on their hands. Heck, even goat lovers will like how it all unfolds!
The film opens with the goofy Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang) staring intently at the camera and then jumping up and announcing to the office that it’s time and he’s going to move into the next office. He runs full speed into a wall, fully convinced he’s going to travel through it based on his own psychic training and it doesn’t quite work out as he expects…
We then meet reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) as he learns that his wife is leaving him to live with his newspaper editor. The transitional scene doesn’t go too well, and Wilton tells us in his role as narrator that “I did what so many men have done throughout history when a woman has broken their heart: I went to war.”
His going to war drops him in Kuwait City, trying to wrangle a passage to Iraq as a war correspondent, so he can prove to his estranged wife that he’s tough and capable. He ends up stuck in a Kuwaiti hotel for weeks, while lying to her that he’s already at the front and dodging threats left and right. Through happenchance he meets Cassady and recognizes his name from the earlier interview about the New Earth Army. That’s the break he needs and the two of them soon rent a car and drive across the border into Iraq.
While on their journey, Cassady explains to Wilton that most people go through life with their eyes closed, but that he, retired US Army Special Forces soldier, and the rest of the New Earth Army, are Jedi warriors. In fact, the code name of the entire New Earth Army project, we learn, is “Project Jedi”. What’s hilarious about this portion of the film is how earnestly Cassady is as he explains everything. It’s not a joke at all. He really can kill with his mind.
Left to right, Bill Jango (Jeff Bridges), Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and Lyn Cassady (George Clooney)
He explains that Bill Jango’s inspiration for the creation of the NEA was through his experiences in the Vietnam war, and that Jango was “a great imagineer, like Jesus Christ, Lao Tse Tung and Walt Disney.” Unlike most projects, though, Project Jedi was tasked with preventing war, not fighting more efficiently. Daisies in rifle barrels, anyone?
There are lots of funny setups in the movie too, including a bit about how the Russians might have gotten ahead of us in psy warfare because they thought we were really creating a psychic warrior program when we weren’t, so they created one and now that they have one, well, we better have one too or they’ll end up ahead of us. Classic Cold War logic. Hopgood is often involved in these paranoid delusions, and conspiracy theorists will appreciate a scene where he’s working in Area 51.
The New Earth Army brings others on board for training in its Jedi techniques, including Larry Hooper (Spacey), who as you can see in the still above, isn’t a very happy fellow and ends up unable to appreciate the accomplishments of his fellow warriors. He’s supposed to be the great Jedi warrior, not Cassady.
Zoom forward in time to the present — or maybe just a few years ago — and we’re back with Wilton and Cassady as they seek the secret Iraqi base that Cassady’s been told to find. “Where exactly is it?” Wilton asks at one point when they’re stranded in the desert. “If I knew that, we’d be there already!” Cassady responds.
Eventually they do find what they seek, the headquarters of Psychic Systems International Company, or PSIC, complete with the Illuminati-esque eye superimposed on the pyramid symbol (not sure what that is? Look on the back of a dollar bill), just to find that the embittered Hooper is in charge and that Jango is still working on refining his psy techniques.
The entire film unfolds with lots of sight gags, much dry satire (be on the lookout for the epic Battle of Ramadi) and a surprisingly engaging storyline that, for this Boulder resident, rings just close enough to possible that it left me wondering, just a bit, whether it might not be based on truth after all.
Whether or not there’s a grain of truth, I’ll say this: The Men Who Stare At Goats is one of the best military satires I’ve seen in many years, a story ultimately about redemption and transformation. But then again, my Jedi skills tell me that you’re going to go see it, so this entire review might well have been unnecessary.