The White Goat's Burden

New Age hippie idealism meets can-do army spirit in The Men Who Stare At Goats


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.

Noah Berlatsky is a Chicago-based writer whose work appears in Comics Journal, The Chicago Reader, and other outlets. He blogs at The Hooded Utilitarian.

NEXT: There Is No Way To Write A Punchy Headline About Metadata

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I own this book. Never does he do anything but hint that all this New Age stuff is bullshit. But he has a way of letting other people do that for him. Like the guy in it who thought he could channel his “che” or something. If a jeep rolls slowly over you, you can survive if you tense up enough. Weight of the jeep gets distributed by it’s wheels. But he didn’t bother to get that a jeep going fast will kill you from the impact. Kinetic energy. Guy goes to do his trick and POW! Jeep going to fast. Kills him.

    The book is full of shit like that.

    1. Somehow I knew you would own books like that.

    2. You have the novel of the film, or the original Jon Ronson book?

      I have Jon Ronson’s book and it is, as all of his stuff, a brilliant insight into the crazy shit people believe in, whether in government or amongst the conspiracy nuts.

      It seems like the film is only loosely based on the original and as Jon Ronson himself says, Ewan McGregor is much too good looking to play him.

  2. He’s a Sith lord, man. He has to track any possible Jedi outbreaks.

    1. “Always two there are. A master and an apprentice.”

  3. Indeed, Pro Lib. I’m on the trail of this terrorist named Luke who wants to defile the Death Star.

    1. I think he wants to defile his sister too. Just like Joe Dirt.

      1. He wants to fire his torpedos into her exhaust port?

        1. The exhaust port is just below the main port.

          1. the joke is that God must be a cicil engineer, becasue only a civil engineer would locate a waste pipe near a recreational area

  4. I recommend the book as well as Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson’s documentary Secret Rulers of the World is also worth a viewing. They are trips into worlds I never knew existed.

    1. Them is fantastic. Goats isn’t as good – doesn’t quite hang together as well

    2. Ronson is basically the Bill Bryson of crazy shit; a subtle and precise sense of humor and a pretty engaging narrative.

  5. Didn’t RTFA, but from the ads, this movie looks like a comedy, which would be a disappointment.

    The book is a tragic freak show with some very dark, disturbing themes relating to the war on terror, torture, murder, all under the umbrella of some of stupidest, bat-shit-insane incompetents in the military and government.

    1. So it’s likely another anti-war box office bomb?

    2. much like this post…

  6. correction: not “themes relating to”, but “direct connections to” war on terror, etc.

  7. Sadly tax dollars being spent on such programs isn’t fiction.

    From Wiki
    Remote viewing was popularized in the 1990s, following the declassification of documents related to the Stargate Project, a 20 million dollar research program sponsored by the U.S. Federal Government to determine any potential military application of psychic phenomena. The program was terminated in 1995, citing a lack of documented evidence that the program had any value to the intelligence community.[5]

    At least the movie isn’t a 20 million dollar joke on the tax payer.

    1. The private sector could have done this for 1/2 the cost and made a profit…and all the while despoiling the environment and trampling on the rights of indigenous populations as well as the GLT and bi-curious.

  8. This may rival Hawmps! as the greatest Army movie ever…

  9. I absolutely HAVE TO see this movie.
    The only way to top it would be to make these guys survivalists preparing to survive the apocalypse with their psychic powers.

  10. 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.

    Sounds like “The Great Buck Howard”. A movie I recently rented and can recommend.

  11. I’ve met one of the guys that was in this. A general who was involved.

  12. Have any of you tried remote viewing or any psi techniques?

    1. Nope, but I listen to Coast to Coast every once in a while when I can’t sleep…miss the fantastic radio entertainer Art Bell.

  13. Damn. Really? i was all set to see this movie thinking it features hot goat on goat action.

  14. Shouldn’t the movie end with Iraqi GDP tripling, hundreds of independent newspapers/TV/radio media where none existed before, electricity and other basic services like sewage, water, and trash hauling having doubled, and a general semblance of basic rights in what had been a totalitarian police state dotted with rape rooms?

    I mean, if you want it to be realistic.

  15. “Fight Club”

    For reasons my 24 year old brain doesn’t fully understand, i take immediate offense to this picture being labeled “New Age”…

  16. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.