The Men Who Stare at Goats (review)

Man? Or Goat?

I’m not sure if I’ve seen a more sublimely funny moment on screen this year than the one in which George Clooney, in all deep serious earnestness, tries to convince Ewan McGregor that he — McGregor, that is — is a Jedi warrior.

“What is a Jedi warrior?” McGregor had asked earlier, when Clooney, in all deep serious earnestness, insisted that he — Clooney, that is — was one.
Now, it’s a safe assumption that McGregor’s (Amelia, Angels & Demons) journalist, Bob Wilton, knows what a fictional Jedi warrior is, and not just because McGregor has previously portrayed one of the ultimate examples of the breed, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Because as the film opens, as Bob — from his far-more-knowledgeable perch in his future — introduces us to himself and his miserable life in Middle America circa 2002, as he introduces some of the concepts that he will be relating to us over the course of the ensuing 90 minutes of cheeky, baffled madness, he likens himself to Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming everyman about to embark upon a journey that will change his life and expand his horizons forever.

But Bob is now dealing with Clooney’s (Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton) wonderfully batshit looney (or is he?) Lyn Cassady, a former (or is he?) U.S. Army operative who was trained (or was he?) in the craziest-ass shit you’ve ever heard of: psychic warfare. Spying on the Russkies via out-of-body experiences. Killing opponent warriors — or goats, for practice; or, in one funny and poignant bit, hamsters — by, you know, staring at them. It’s completely insane, except there are reports that this kind of thing really did go on during the Cold War (it’s sorta Catch 22 meets Ghostbusters, or Dr. Venkman meets Dr. Strangelove in the War Room). Which would, if true, leave veterans of such a program running around looking to get into trouble today, in the midst of Gulf War II, when Bob first encounters Lyn after he — Bob, that is — runs away from his miserable life in Middle America hoping to find solace and redemption in being a manly war correspondent in Iraq.

“More of this is true than you would believe,” insists the placard that opens The Men Who Stare at Goats, and maybe that’s true. Or maybe it’s just a put-on of a different but similar order to, say, The Fourth Kind also opening this weekend. And while it’s questionable whether the hippie-dippy “New Earth Army” actually exists — as Lyn relates its history, from Vietnam to the present day, to Bob as they drive around the deserts of Kuwait in 2003 looking for a way into Iraq as the macho imperialistic Western invasion gets underway in earnest — there is no doubt that the yearning and the questioning and the skepticism it all encapsulates about modern masculinity is achingly authentic. Even if it is presented via a smartly low-key and howlingly hilarious perspective…

“We have to dream a new America,” Lyn’s commanding officer, Jeff Bridges’ (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Iron Man) Bill Django, explains to Lyn and other recruits in the post-Vietnam era, as he — Bill, that is — begins a program within the Army, back in the 1970s, to create “warrior monks” who strive for peace through positive thinking, embracing Mother Earth, and profoundly beating the shit out of bad guys who nevertheless happen to get in their way. This all happens in flashbacks, as Bob relates it to us as Lyn has, supposedly, related it to him, and the uncertainty as to the truth of any of it becomes a sort of underscore to Bob’s uncertainty about what his life is about. He left Ann Arbor to escape a broken marriage — when we first meet him, he is actually in tears over his heartbreak, which is a more vulnerable and open position than we’re used to seeing men onscreen being in. But has he found anything better in Lyn’s vision of do-goodery? Is the new America waiting to be discovered by men who feel rather than act? Are real men warriors, or are only Jedi warriors real men? Or are men who believe themselves to be Jedi warriors just crazy?

Do real, sane men, in other words, stare at goats?

Director Grant Heslov (a member of Clooney’s posse; he was a cowriter and producer on Good Night, and Good Luck.) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) — adapting the book of the same name by Jon Ronson [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — are as much at a loss as Bob to figure out what modern manhood is. (Lyn seems pretty confident in his masculinity, though he’s such a cocky bastard that it’s hard to know what he really thinks.) That’s fine. The mission isn’t the answer. The mission is the question.

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