Truth is stranger than fiction… unless it’s coming out of the mouth of Glenn Beck. But in all seriousness, there really are a lot of cases where you hear a true story and think that there’s no possibly way that that actually happened. It was Mark Twain that once said some variation on the words “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense,” and trading upon these bizarrely insightful words is the new film The Men Who Stare at Goats.
There’s a scene in the film where one Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang) explains to a superior that the US Army should set up their own division to explore practical military applications of paranormal theory because the Russians think they already are due to some disinformation spread by the French. It may be insane clown logic, but from the brain-trust that gave us “unknown unknowns” it has its own troubling logic to it. But The Men Who Stare at Goats is not a conspiracy theory movie. It doesn’t plum the bottomless depth of paranoia lore to connect the dots between nefarious sectors of the military industrial complex. It’s for all intents and purposes, a buddy comedy.
George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, who with Fox Mulder-like paranoia-turn and a vaudevillian moustache claims to be a government trained “Jedi warrior” on a mission given to him – via psychic connection – by his former C.O. Lt. Col. Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). The buddy is Bill Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist from Ann Arbour trying to earn his stripes as a big time war correspondent. Bill’s accidental encounter with Lyn leads him on a bizarre adventure through the secret psychic warfare history of the US Army as explained by Lyn, Django’s most talented disciple in First Earth Battalion. A combination of paranormal research and new age mysticism and philosophy was the basis of the First Earth Battalion, whose creation was meant to find a way to fight war through peace.
Not so implausible it seems, although the degree to which everything is true is probably best left for debate. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to know what MKULTRA was or that the CIA toyed around with LSD and psychic warfare, from remote viewing to mind control to long distance assassination. Extreme times call for extreme measures, right? Well Lyn Cassidy isn’t a he-man super-patriot, crossing the Iraqi desert in order to find the action he’s missing. He’s just a guy looking for a place to belong, and a reason to believe. It’s interesting to see Clooney, maybe the closest thing we have to a genuine, old school Hollywood leading man, go bug-eyed mental as an army washout that swears he cursed his while division by killing a goat just by looking at it in the eyes for too long.
Overall, Men Who Stare at Goats is a wonderfully hippy, dippy answer to all the serious dramas and documentaries made about Iraq. In its own way, the film deals with issues stemming from the conflict, like the war romanticism and opportunistic fervour the then potential conflict seemed to foster in certain people. But mostly though, it’s a kind of a walkabout story: two guys wander the desert trying to find themselves and realizing that they knew what they needed out of life the whole time. What that is isn’t exactly clear by the end credits though. The appearance of Kevin Spacey Lyn’s rival Larry Hooper was probably the most conventional part of the movie with Hooper’s perversion of Django’s ideals being the catalyst for both Lyn and Django’s spiritual reawakening. But mostly, Spacey just plays his usual boogeyman.
But I genuinely enjoyed The Men Who Stare at Goats for its zany, supposedly true central conceit and the sheer joyfulness of these actors playing just nearly over-the-top characters. The story is tight and compelling with a good comedic heart but with something more going on under the emotional surface. It’s a powerful lesson that we all have a place to belong in this world, we just have to get off our butts and have the courage to go out there and find it. Jedi powers optional.