Movies: The Men Who Stare at Goats

…directed by Grant Heslov, written by Peter Straughan (script) and Jon Runson (book), starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, & Kevin Spacey.  The Men Who Stare at Goats chronicles the efforts of a small-town reporter named Bob (McGregor) to uncover the story of the Army’s efforts at developing and using paranormal and psychic powers.  After an interview with a veteran of the Special Forces’ First Earth the Battalion and being cuckolded by his wife, Bob heads for Iraq to try his hand as a war correspondent.  There he runs into Lyn (Clooney), the Army’s former top psychic, who has his own mission in the desert.

We learn about the First Earth Battalion’s founder,   Lt. Colonel Bill Django (Bridges, reprising the Dude in some respects), who came back from Nam and conducted extensive research on all the New Age stuff you could hope for, and convinced his bosses at Fort Bragg to start the psychic/paranormal soldier program.  Django wants to train Jedi-knights – warrior monks of peace who can convince the enemy to move beyond conflict through reason and telepathic manipulation – and enlists Lyn and others in this pursuit.  They’re interested in remote viewing, precognition, phasing, and of course physical psychic manipulations (hence the goats).

The story proceeds in a series of flashbacks as Rob narrates what he’s learned from Lyn about the First Earthers, even as Rob and Lyn move into Iraq in pursuit of some secretive objective.  The movie is based on real events and true efforts by the U.S. Military to understand and utilize the paranormal, and it attempts to follow the actual reporting rather than embark on some zany over-the-top spiel.  That said, the characters are still fairly zany and over-the-top even as they seem realistic.  Bob narrates allusions to Frodo and young Luke Skywalker at the beginning of the story – themes that return throughout.  Clooney is great as the intense, and earnestly nutty Lyn, and you’ll never get a complaint from me with Bridges doing a hippie/New Age Green Beret.  Kevin Spacey rounds out the cast as a jealous would-be psychic soldier who represents the Dark Side of psy-ops.

The movie has plenty of incongruous scenes and scenarios that are all the more hilarious if you know anything about the military.  Much of the humor is subtle and ironic in tone, based on carefully setting up scenes and having the actors deliver well-timed lines like true pros.  Because of this, and because the filmmakers chose to stay close to the source material of Runson’s books (hence reality) rather than embarking on some totally unrealistic Hollywood-style comedy, some viewers haven’t known exactly what to make of Goats.  It’s definitely not Judd Apatow or National Lampoon style humor.  It’s probably not for everyone.

That said, we enjoyed this movie immensely and recommend Goats highly.  It has great performances, quirky paranormal humor, and a highly entertaining story laced with Star Wars references (with Ewan McGregor delivering quite a few tongue-in-cheek Jedi lines).  The movie in fact has one of the great final lines I’ve seen in recent years.  Even the standard anti-war movie overtones are delivered in an earnest rather than preachy style.  So check it out in theaters while you still can.

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