My notes on The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)A fiction film wrung from Jon Ronson’s book about the US Army’s experiments with psychic powers, this boils down to an oddball buddies-on-the-road picture set in just-invaded Iraq, with journo Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a meek little creep who has something to prove since his wife left him for his (one-armed!) editor, tugged along by the demented enthusiasms of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a self-declared Jedi Warrior who is reputedly the most outstanding psychic to emerge from the army’s New Age program. As the pair make their way through the desert and a country still in chaos, Bob recounts at second hand what Lyn tells him about the history of US parapsychological warfare – a unit headed by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam veteran who trawled through the counterculture for bright ideas, and sponsored by an idealistic officer (Stephen Lang) who’s been convinced by a trashy paperback (which – years ago – I read while researching a novel) that the Soviets have drawn ahead of an imaginary American program invented by the French as a propaganda joke. The snake in Eden is ‘failed science fiction writer’ Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) – named after Larry Niven? – who is jealous of Cassady’s powers and wants to pervert the pacifist warrior project with LSD, goat-killing death stares and (in Iraq) wholesale torture. Naturally, at the end of the present-tense trail, Cassady comes up against Hooper for a last time, and rescues his guru Django from his clutches – though this means his break-up with Bob, who is left blinking and wondering as the hippie post-humans vanish in a helicopter after dosing an entire base with acid.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, there were a lot of films (The Fury, Scanners, Firestarter) about telekinetics, pyrokinetics, mind-readers and the like mixed up in Black Ops, covert wars, espionage and assassination conspiracies – this purports to tell the truth behind those, and reveal the farcical side of generals who think they can run through walls or super-powered individuals who can dissolve clouds with their minds but crash the car into the one single rock in an otherwise featureless desert landscape. The script, in an obvious in-joke, has ex-Obi Wan McGregor scratching his head when told what a Jedi is – as if anyone in America didn’t know by 2004; there’s a throwaway joke that the program continued in the 1980s because Ronald Reagan was a fan of both the psi stuff and the Star Wars films. However, in the backstory, the pop cultural reference doesn’t quite work: Django seems to be using the term Jedi before Star Wars came out  – in the 1970s, surely the concept would have been hung on Carlos Castenada or Jack Kirby (there’s much talk of a ‘super-soldier program’, which is from Captain America) or even John W. Campbellian magazine s-f? There’s rich comic stuff in the juxtaposition of Django’s hippie agenda and the ramrod-stiff certainties of the army, as he hands out flowers to his men or cultivates peculiar, scarcely applicable talents. Even the black moment when the dream dies, as Cassady – without really trying – stops a goat’s heart, is played for laughs that hobble later attempts to sell this as one of those ‘end of America’s innocence’ moments on a par with the cinema closing in The Last Picture Show, the Beatles killing surf music in American Graffiti or videotape scuppering porn’s artistic aspirations in Boogie Nights.
Directed by Grant Heslov, who has produced Clooney’s films as a director, this is less sharp than the skewed mix of truth and outrageous lie in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or the more sombre Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney and McGregor play it like a classic comedy team – more Lemmon and Matthau than Bing and Bob, but still on a road to somewhere – and Bridges and Spacey haven’t quite got out of their recent showings in comic book movies, with Bridges playing a mix of the Dude and Dr Strange and Spacey resurrecting his Luthorian weaselliness. It’s also a very blokey film, with minimal female presence and a set of men who get into tangled, hyper-emotional, slightly camp relationships – which perhaps makes it just a slightly ‘out’ version of a typical macho grunt war picture. Maybe it would be impossible to take Ronson’s material seriously, and despite an opening caption there’s very little true story in the major plot arcs (though I believe the bit about a battle in Iraq that’s down to two jittery, bullying US-backed private security firms getting into a firefight … and the political prisoner tortured by being played Barney the Dinosaur round the clock also has the horrible ring of truth). Still, it’s full of breezy fun stuff, well-chosen bits hippie era music (sadly, John Williams’ Star Wars themes don’t get a workout) and top-of-the-line film actors unleashing their inner geek.
1: Okay, so maybe he’s a precog. Embarrassingly, the only two flashes of inexplicable (and utterly trivial) psychic ability I’ve displayed in my life were connected with specific movies — Star Wars and Rendezvous at Bray. No, I’m not a believer – and even if I was, being mystically attuned with the movies isn’t going to get me into the Xavier Academy or a Men Who Glare at Stoats super-squaddie program. I was once consulted by the police and helped break an alibi by identifying a snatch of soundtrack accidentally recorded on a 999 call as from the Shannon Whirry vehicle Hollywood Madame. So maybe I should copyright Dr Lumiere or Professor Elstree as a hero name …