“More of this is true than you would believe” reads the disclaimer at the beginning of Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I would like to believe. The movie is more than a bit of a mess, but there’s a lot of good here, it’s pleasant and breezy, and the underlying material is really intriguing. It’s worthy of some forgiveness and a mild recommendation.
The men stare at the goats in order to kill them with the power of their mind. They’re super soldiers trained by the US military in aspects of the paranormal. They’d be the perfect soldiers and spies; but do the superpowers really work? That’s more of a ‘maybe’.
Goats jumps back and forth in time, but we begin with Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), reporter looking for the perfect story. He wouldn’t expect that from crackpot Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who tells Bob about the New Earth Army and the government-funded paranormal training, but then he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), who seems a tad more convincing (despite the mustache).
Wilton meets Cassidy in Iraq, where one thread of the story takes us, but we’re far more interested in Cassidy’s continued history of the New Earth Army, recreated for our pleasure in detailed flashbacks featuring some really fun performances.
The New Earth Army was founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who realized that soldiers didn’t really want to kill. He turned New Age philosophy, discovered peace could make for a more powerful weapon than war, and somehow convinced the US government to commit funding to studying the powers of the mind.
Django trains his men using hippy-dippy New Age philosophy, but the good vibes are eventually killed off by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a failed student who wants to use the powers of the mind for more sinister plots (like, killing off goats) and is easily able to convince military officials of the benefits for taking Django’s program in this direction.
The Men Who Stare at Goats has one big problem: it’s a satire, but isn’t quite sure if it’s light and breezy or darker and heavy or how serious it should take itself or it’s subject matter. This results in a tone that’s all over the map for most of the film; ‘goofy’ is a good descriptor for most of it.
Other issues: the lead character, McGregor’s reporter, is a real snooze. And the production is TV-level efficient but unexceptional and decidedly uncinematic; director Heslov hasn’t really brought much to the table.
But there’s a lot of good here, in the New Earth Army flashbacks and in the performances from Clooney and Bridges, who both know exactly how to respond to the material. If you can forgive the weaknesses, The Men Who Stare at Goats provides plenty of goofy fun.