By Don Simpson | November 6, 2009
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer(s): Jon Ronson (book), Peter Straughan(screenplay)
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey
Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a small-time newspaper reporter from Ann Arbor, Michigan. When Bob finds out that his wife Debora (Rebecca Mader) plans to leave him for his editor, he decides that he needs to prove his manhood – and what better place to prove your manhood than Iraq in the mid-aughts. But when Bob finds himself stranded in Kuwait, with no valid excuse to cross the border, he meets a guy by the name of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Bob recognizes Lyn’s name from an interview he did earlier in his career with a seemingly self-proclaimed psychic spy, Gus Lacey (Stephen Root). Bob realizes that it is his destiny to learn more about Lyn – who Gus previously cited as one of the foremost psychic spies. Next thing we know, Lyn and Bob are speeding across the Iraqi desert in search of god only knows…
Produced and directed by Grant Heslov (producer and Clooney’s co-screenwriter on Good Night, and Good Luck), the film is based on Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats. We are reminded at the onset of the film, that more of the events are based on truth than we would ever believe. Indeed Ronson’s book uncovered a strange military world that seems like an absurd cross between Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove and the X-Files.
The goats of which the title speaks have been used in top-secret experiments by psychic spies in the U.S. Army. Some psychic spies (such as Lyn) are actually able stop a goat’s heart by merely staring at them intensely. The Army’s psychic spies often refer to themselves as Jedi Warriors (probably the sole reason that Ewan McGregor was cast as Bob) – their Army faction dates back to early Star Wars days, when the post-Vietnam military was ready to try anything new.
The psychic spy manual (which the film references) truly exists – “First Earth Battalion Operations Manual” was written by Vietnam veteran Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon. The 125-page manual is mixture of drawings, graphs, maps, essays and redesigns of every aspect of military life. Channon envisioned this new military would try to win the hearts of the enemy by utilizing such tactics as greeting them with “sparkly eyes.” If these measures were unsuccessful, the First Earth Battalion would employ the use of non-lethal weapons to subdue them. Lethal force was to be a last resort. Meditation, yogic cat stretches and primal screams are utilized to attain battle-readiness. First Earth Battalion trainees would learn to fast for a week, drinking only juice and then eat only nuts and grains for a month. The soldiers would develop the ability to: communicate with spirits, perceive auras, pass through objects (such as walls), bend objects with their minds, walk on fire, change violent patterns in the world, control their heart rate, have out-of-body experiences, be 90%+ vegetarians, and be able to intuit other people’s thoughts and feelings. First Earth Battalion would recite the “Earth Prayer”: Mother Earth… my life support system… as a soldier… I must drink your blue water… live inside your red clay and eat your green skin. I pray… my boots will always kiss your face and my footsteps match your heartbeat. Carry my body through space and time… you are my connection to the Universe… and all that comes after. I am yours and you are mine. I salute you.
The content alone is ridiculously hilarious, yet The Men Who Stare at Goats is hacked together in such a disjointed non-linear manner that is both disorienting and frustrating. Heslov opts to tell the tale from the point of view of the journalist (possibly to add authenticity or realism); half of the story is Bob’s present day adventures with Lyn and the other half are flashbacks that begin with “Lyn told me…” It seems like every time the story starts picking up momentum, it stops in order to completely change gears. I suspect the story would have been much more coherent (and entertaining) if it played out more linearly, or at least with less stops and starts. Heck, the film could have done without the Bob character altogether – he’s boring and pointless (but maybe that was due to McGregor’s horrendously inconsistent accent or his approach to this character?); while Jeff Bridges (who plays the eccentric hippie leader of the psychic spies, Bill Django) and Kevin Spacey (who plays one of the more gifted psychic spies, Larry Hooper) are dreadfully underused. And what happened to Gus Lacey – why is he completely absent from the flashback sequences of the psychic spies? Wasn’t he a psychic spy with Lyn, Bill and Larry? At least Clooney is brilliant.