The Men Who Stare at Goats

We taxpayers and citizens of this country who depend upon the armed services to protect us, like to think of the branches of the military as efficient, no nonsense organizations.  Of course decades of news reports about wasteful defense contracts and endless military comedies in movies and on TV have put the lie to this myth. The military is the best funded item in our national budget and the most likely organization to be motivated by irrational impulses, namely fear of what the other guy is doing. If the Soviets are experimenting with psychic research then we’d better too, in case there’s anything to it.

The idea for The Men Who Stare at Goats was inspired by the unlikely reality of the First Earth Battalion.  I encourage you to look up the “reality” on Wikipedia. Grant Heslov, the director and Peter Straughan, the screenwriter have changed some names, added a few characters and tacked on a whisker thin plot, but otherwise they have the details right. There was a First Earth Battalion that trained its men in psychic techniques like remote viewing, teleportation, and telekinesis.  They did call themselves Jedi Warriors, and de-bleated goats were sneaked into Fort Bragg in the late 70’s, as well as other details.

The plot of the movie concerns reporter Bob Wilton played by Ewan McGregor stumbling onto to the story of this strange unit, when he interviews Gus Lacey, played by the always entertaining Stephen Root, who claims to have the power to stop the hearts of guinea pigs. Wilton thinks he’s crazy until he is shown a videotape of a guinea pig keeling over for a second and then recovering. Gus’s mother didn’t want him to kill the animal. Shortly after this encounter, Wilton’s wife leaves him for his boss and Wilton goes to Iraq to prove himself as a real reporter. While in Kuwait, waiting for a chance to get into Iraq, he meets Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney and recognizes his name as one dropped by Lacey in his interview. Wilton latches on to Cassady and together they drive across the border on a bumbling adventure that can only be described as a comedic new age Apocalypse Now. Along the way, Cassady relates the history of the First Earth Battalion.

That structure is the film’s main flaw. The plot as I mentioned is perilously thin and the back story is the main purpose of the film. It’s almost a documentary, and I gather that there is a BBC documentary.

But it works because the great cast is able to pull off the eccentric performances required. Clooney’s comic chops are well documented and he captures Cassady’s contradictions and makes them work. He is a trained special forces warrior who happens to believe that if he hands his enemy a baby lamb or some other animal of peace, that will cause a transformation of his enemy’s intentions. It’s hilarious. Jeff Bridges, as Bill Django, the leader and founder of the First Earth Battalion, basically reprises his role as the Dude in The Big Lebowski, but he does it well and it’s funny. Kevin Spacey plays Larry Hooper, the villain, who wants to use these questionable practices to make money as a military consultant.

There is a dark side to this story too. A lot of the mental torture techniques used in the second Iraq emerged from ideas originated in this movement, namely the idea of playing loud music and noises to prisoners in order to break them. This provides the central conflict of the plot.

In that sense the script probably needed a few more drafts to massage all that into a coherent whole.  But even if it isn’t perfect, The Men Who Stare at Goats gets the job done.

Kind of like the military.


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November 2009
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