In Jon Ronsonâ€™s book, The Men Who Stare at Goats (my review), the author presents himself as an outside observer of the psychic spy, military-trained First Earth Battalion movement. He is fascinated by the stories being told to him by former members of the U.S. military and he presents them all, expecting the reader to sort out the truth from the fantasy. In Grant Heslovâ€™s film version of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the protagonist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is much more than a cautious observer â€“ he is a catalyst for the action to take place.
By presenting the film in this way it becomes increasingly difficult to sort out whatâ€™s true and what is fabricated. Everything in the film is ridiculous, but by presenting a protagonist who goes along for the ride it makes everything look like fiction and misses a lot of the outrageousness. I doubt many theatre goers will walk out of this movie with a desire to do research.
The problem in adapting a book like Ronsonâ€™s is that there is not really one story, but a conglomeration of â€œinstances.â€ Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan attempt to put the pieces together in some form of linear narrative, but the result is something that is sloppily assembled so that it is as confusing and pointless as psychic spies themselves. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, brief scenes that have no place in the film as a whole, a soundtrack that sounds like the first level of Guitar Hero, and a disappointing and half-hearted ending.
The film does have one thing going for it, however â€“ it is quite funny. George Clooney is at his comedic best as Lyn Cassady, a psychic spy whose work with the U.S. military has ended, but who still completes missions if destiny requires. Journalist Bob Wilton crosses paths with Lyn through remarkable coincidence while searching for the story he is destined to write. As an unlikely team they travel into Iraq on a flashback filled journey where Lyn educates Bob on the ways of the Jedi warriors. In flashbacks we see the father of the U.S. Armyâ€™s First Earth Battalion, Bill Django, an officer in the army who is influenced by new wave thinking and he attempts to create a new branch of the military that fights with flowers instead of weapons. We also meet Larry Hooper â€“ a student of Djangoâ€™s whose experimental psychic techniques lead to controversy within the psychic arm of the military.
Lyn and Bob manage to escape being captured by terrorists and getting lost in the desert and finally find the purpose of their journey. Destiny, as the film seems to imply, throws all of the men together.
The names and titles of the characters in the film have been changed, which results in no naming of names or pointing of fingers. It is undeniable that the military sanctioned activities are crazy, but the film presents them as perfectly acceptable. The real insanity comes from the higher ups within the U.S. military who resort to such unconventional methods of military defense. The script makes only a casual reference to Reagan being a fan of the First Earth Battalion, but doesnâ€™t go further than that. In one brief scene we see how dangerous their tactics are when a drugged up test soldier runs naked into a field shooting at fellow soldiers. Perhaps itâ€™s the recent events at Fort Hood, but the fact that this scene was meant to be played for comedy (or â€œsatireâ€) made me very uncomfortable.
I realize the film was intended to be satirical and for brief moments here and there, it worked. George Clooneyâ€™s excellent timing made me chuckle once or twice and Jeff Bridges was excellent as the slightly numb Officer Django. However, as the film continued to cycle from flashback to present, with one intersecting narrative after another, even the humor couldnâ€™t keep me interested.
Bottom Line: It has some moments of humor, but overall The Men Who Stare at Goats is an attempt at satire that missed the point.