Besides its title, the best thing about The Men Who Stare At Goats is the premise. The movie centers on the army’s more-or-less fictionalized efforts to harness psychic powers. It opens with a brigadier general making an unsuccessful attempt to phase through a wall, and the remaining hour and a half is filled with enough errant quackery to stock a commune full of cranks. Whether it’s spoon-bending, mind control, “sparkly eye technique,” vaguely Eastern sun salutations, or vaguely Amerindian eagle feather rituals, the army’s Project Jedi embraces them all with egalitarian and eclectic aplomb.
This conflation of New Age hippie idealism and the can-do American Army spirit is so perfect it almost qualifies as a spiritual revelation in its own right. When Jedi-leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) announces to his wannabe super-soldiers, “Be All You Can Be!” you laugh not because it’s incongruous, but because it isn’t. The chatauqua lecturers and the army recruiter are one, and they’re both selling the same snake oil. As long as you believe in yourself, they say, there’s no telling what you can do—from cavorting in hot tubs to murdering goats with your mind to invading sovereign nations.
As the plot wanders into Iraq, the filmmakers gleefully embrace that last insight. One of the funniest scenes features psychic warrior extraordinaire Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) driving through the desert while trying to disperse a cloud with his mind. His eyes shift from the road to the sky, from the road to the sky until finally the cloud breaks. He gloats happily—and then the car hits a rock, totaling it. Mission accomplished, as some might say.
Of course, if the metaphor were to work perfectly, Lyn should have hit an innocent civilian and killed him, and maybe crippled himself in the process. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t pay Clooney-sized salaries only to catastrophically sideline the man himself halfway through the film.
But that points to a central quandary of the movie. On the one hand, The Men Who Stare At Goats is trying to be a smart, black, satirical comedy, poking equal fun at the earnest militant right and the earnest peace-and-love left. Yet on the other hand, it’s still trying to be a mainstream Hollywood movie. And whenever the two impulses come into conflict, Hollywood wins.
Thus we’re saddled from the beginning with a gee-whiz-everyman narrator, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who plays an ever-more-breathless grasshopper to Lyn’s Mr. Miyagi. Meanwhile, Lyn himself gets to play the role of action hero, demonstrating that despite all of his preposterous gobbledygook, he’s still super-soldier enough to kick the collective asses of some random Iraqi kidnappers.
The movie could perhaps have survived Lyn’s physical prowess. Alas, it’s unwilling to rest there. It’s no secret that New Age mumbo-jumbo is the driving force behind every third Hollywood movie, from Field of Dreams to Fight Club to Star Wars. The Men Who Stare At Goats may begin by mocking this impulse, but it’s careful to leave itself an out: In the end, it never firmly declares that Lyn’s powers are bullshit. Indeed, if the movie begins with skepticism enlivened by a cutesy hedge of belief, it ends with full-on gullibility, gilded with an occasional patina of irony. Thus, in the climactic scene, army soldiers inadvertently tripping on LSD wander around harmlessly while guru Bill Django frees captured Iraqis from their torture chambers. As he flings open the door, he triumphantly declares “in the name of the New Earth Army and loving people everywhere, I’m liberating you!”
Again, if the analogy were to work, the freed Iraqis should instantly be shot—possibly by some of those tripping soldiers carrying guns. At this point, though, the movie has settled into an easy binary: If you start with love in your heart, nothing bad can happen. You can even tell that it’s true—the anonymous Iraqis are scampering off into the desert. Earlier, we did get to meet one soulful, sad Iraqi whose life had been ruined—but he was there mostly to grant absolution, finding Bob and Lyn a car to let them know that while some Americans suck, they, at least, are still good people.
But what we really need to focus on is poor Bob Wilton, who has overcome his troubles and who—though disappointed in love and ultimately in his career ambitions—has gained spiritual insight, phasing through walls to the uplifting strains of “More Than a Feeling” as the credits roll. All the heartbreak, the horror, the strain, the stinking piles of dead bodies, it was all meant to be, man. Foreign adventures are just part of our quest for spiritual fulfillment—or, I should say, part of our quest for “spiritual fulfillment.” Either way, the point is America’s infinitely interesting psychodrama, whether embraced immediately or first ironized and then embraced. As for the natives, if we value them any higher than we do the goats, you couldn’t tell it from this movie.