The film opens with an advisory stating that, “More of this is true than you’d believe.” Sounds about right. The Men Who Stare at Goats dramatizes Jon Ronson’s book, which detailed the most bizarre examples of your tax dollars at work that you could ever hope to unearth. Psychic warfare, remote viewing, LSD experiments, and, yes, staring at goats – it’s all here, and more than a little of what transpires in Grant Heslov’s terminally strange black comedy actually went down.
It begins innocently enough when reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) follows up on a tip about an ex-soldier who claims to have psychic powers. Sure, it sounds completely loopy, but Wilton pursues the story, flying to Kuwait City where he has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a re-activated member of the ultra-secret Jedi Knights. The Knights were part of the New Earth Army, the Army’s secret battalion of unstoppable psychic warriors, true super soldiers in the service of the sole remaining superpower.
Wilton convinces Cassady to allow him to tag along on his hush-hush mission and along the way, Cassady gives him the secret history of the New Earth Army. In a series of flashbacks, we see how a revelatory vision experienced by Lt. Col. Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) in Vietnam served as the impetus to create a new kind of soldier. Django traveled far and wide to accumulate training techniques suitable for his new breed of soldier, and his residence in myriad hippie communes as well as his experiences with applied New Age philosophies informed the development of his decidedly unorthodox training regimen. Dance therapy to free the mind. Exotic yoga to limber the body. If it takes a good acid trip to unlock a soldier’s psychic potential, well, you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
Much of The Men Who Stare at Goats is howlingly funny. All of it is mind-bogglingly strange. While most of the characters are composites of the actual participants in the program and the narrative is a fabrication, much of the film’s content is grounded in truth. There was a First Earth Battalion that served as the model for the film’s New Earth Army and their methods were pretty much the same. The U. S. military did conduct experiments into the military application of the paranormal. Hey, we couldn’t let the Soviets get one up on us. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
The performances are quite good overall, although McGregor slips in and out of his American accent. Jeff Bridges is the man who walks away with the show, though, gloriously embodying the hippy-dippy peaceful warrior who gets the whole unbelievably strange enterprise underway.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is as peculiar as mainstream movies get. You might laugh. You might gaze at the screen in mute astonishment. You most definitely will not be bored. If you’re looking for something different and fully prepared to turn and face the strange, The Men Who Stare at Goats will deliver the goods.