Alright, imagine that in the 80’s, the US government sanctioned the implementation of an Army regiment trained using New Age hippie tactics and placing emphasis on the paranormal. These soldiers were taught the art of remote viewing (the ability to gather information about unseen or far away targets through extra-sensory perception), and it was hoped that they ultimately could learn how to turn invisible and walk through solid matter, making them powerful psychic spies, Jedi warriors, warrior monks, and so on. Got all that? Good. Now imagine that what I just wrote out is actually based in reality. Are you still with me?
The Men Who Stare at Goats purports to tell the story of the New Earth Army, a group of soldiers trained with the goal of becoming supernatural soldiers for the United States of America. And while it is grounded in something close to fact, it’s hard to tell how much the movie embellishes upon the ideas and information yielded by its source material, a book of the same name by Welsh-born Gonzo journalist Jon Ronson. (According to the book, it was absolutely believed that these soldiers could learn to not only walk through walls with the correct preparation of mind, but also, as the title references, kill goats by staring at them.)
We’re introduced to the wide world of paranormal military tactics by a cast including audience stand-in Ewan McGregor, the ubiquitous George Clooney, slimeball Kevin Spacey, and the incomparable Jeff Bridges. Recapping, we have an incredible cast telling a story with a premise so batty and off-the-wall that it would be gleefully bonkers even if it wasn’t based on something relatively factual. So the question is, is it any good?
The Men Who Stare at Goats isn’t a truly terrible movie; it’s pointedly mediocre. For any other movie this wouldn’t so much be a problem, but in the case of a film with such potential as this one, it’s sort of a crime. The concept alone is pure gold, and the cast is rock solid; aspects of the story are somewhat timely given current world affairs. So where does the film go wrong? In truth it’s hard to determine which symptom is the root cause of its inadequacy, as the film is so jumbled and unpolished that it would be easy to argue that one element is to blame as much as the next.
The film follows around McGregor’s spineless milquetoast journalist Bob as he goes off to be an imbedded journalist in the Iraq war to prove to his ex-wife that he has chutzpah (though why he even thinks she’ll care is never explained). By delightful coincidence, he runs into Lynn Cassady (Clooney), a retired member of the previously mentioned unit of psychic soldiers; Cassady has been “reactivated”, and is heading to Iraq. He chooses to keep the former detail hidden from Bob, and brings the hapless writer with him into a war zone as the film begins to cut between their journey together and Cassady’s training days at Fort Bragg.
Just when the movie seems like it’s going pick up, it sags. Bob and Lynn setting out together is the point at which the movie should gathers steam and barrels forward, but The Men Who Stare at Goats stalls out between uninspired and tired moments where Bob boggles at Lynn’s numerous eccentricities and flashbacks that are saturated with dense, unnecessary exposition. In a way this sort of betrays the excellent cast first-time feature film director Grant Heslov has at his disposal; there is no need for Clooney, Bridges, or Spacey to illustrate any articulate emotion when everything that they’re feeling is spoon-fed to us through voice-over.
But this dances around the real problem at the heart of film; the heroes are on a journey, ultimately, for no appreciable or palatable reason, and with no final end goal in mind. Bob is ostensibly there to win back his wife from his one-armed editor, and Lynn is there to fulfill his duties as a solder in the New Earth Army. Both of these stories are so shoddily established that for the better part of the film’s duration, these men are simply wandering in Iraq for the heck of it. There isn’t an over-arching conflict drawn early on in the story to give their travels even superficial meaning; when that desperately needed drama finally unveils itself in the last third of the movie, it’s much too late, though admittedly the climactic hijinx provide a fair amount of amusement.
At the center of this about-nothing film is a pretty stellar foursome; of these men, it is Bridges who receives the most fleshed-out arc and does the most with his character. Bill Django starts as a rough, gruff soldier and veteran of the Vietnam War, and becomes a hippie shaman, and ultimately ends up being reduced to almost nothing. Bridges brings a special level of characterization to Django at each phase of his life; the transformation from soldier, to New Age monk, to nobdoy at all very nearly becomes poignant, and provides some level of commentary on how wars change the people who fight them. For Bridges, this is a minor role, but he breathes life into it in a way that helps keep the film afloat whenever he’s present.
Clooney and McGregor are surprisingly dross in the leading roles. I never thought that Clooney could be boring, but Cassady might just be the kind of character that smothers the charisma of a man like Clooney. Clooney plays the straight man with smoldering but quiet intensity (Michael Clayton); he can play the oddball wacko with unfathomable levels of charm (let’s say Burn After Reading). Cassady is neither such character, and at many times it’s plain to see Clooney struggle with him. He certainly nails it perfectly in some moments (Lynn showing Bob how to use the New Earth Army’s weapon of choice is particularly hysterical), but for the most part the poor guy seems kind of lost. And as much as I’m a fan of McGregor, I will never understand the fascination with forcing him to do an American accent; to give credit where credit is due, he is not nearly as awkward here as he is in Big Fish (where he sounds like he’s imitating Foghorn Leghorn). But if he’s not as grating in The Men Who Stare at Goats, he’s certainly less engaging and captivating.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, in all, isn’t a huge cinematic offense taken in context. Outside of itself, however, it’s a shame to see such a great idea wasted alongside such a strong cast. Being fair, this is Heslov’s first time directing a feature-length picture, but even taking that into account, how does anyone squander this much potential? Sadly, I think this will end up being one of those “coulda” pictures; with a more seasoned director at the helm, this might have turned out to be something truly memorable and special.