Rather than going for super-seriousness, heavily partisan posturing, or even documentary-like commentary, The Men Who Stare At Goats, directed by actor-turned-producer Grant Heslov, is a light, pleasant comedy, with extra lashings of silliness for good measure. The film rips its narrative from Jon Ronson’s 2003 journalistic work of the same name, albeit with a fictionalised slant, and a cheery endnote declaring ‘More of this is true than you would believe’.
The men of the title stare at goats for a reason: to kill them. They are part of a top-secret division of the US Armed Forces, mostly active in the 1980s, called the New Earth Army, that were tasked with experimenting with the application of paranormal techniques in the military.
The narrative follows Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor), a regional journalist in America who, after experiencing something of a life crisis, decides to decamp to Iraq in search of thrills. In reality, he sits in his swanky hotel room, and makes do with exaggerated phonecalls to his ex-wife back in the States. However, a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), one of the New Earth Army’s recently-reactivated ‘warrior monks’, takes him deep into the volatile war zone. Crucially, he also relates the story of the unit, from the roots in founder Bill Django’s (Jeff Bridges) experiences in the Vietnam War, to its rise and eventual fall throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Peter Straughan’s script mines a lot of humour from the absurd collision of crew-cut, American straight-facedness and paranormal mysticism. Clooney, in particular, is a hoot. He imbues Cassady with both sincerity and conviction, which chime well with the dialogue, as he rattles off phenomena that would be familiar to any avid reader of the Fortean Times.
Flashbacks to the Vietnam War and beyond gently ape war movie stylistics, while filling out Jeff Bridges’ best stoner guru character this side of The Dude from The Big Lebowski; however, Django is more than just flower-power antics, as the decline of the New Earth Army is transcribed onto the character’s slide into frazzled out middle age.
This ‘death of the hippy dream’ narrative is welcome, and suitably darkens the mood while keeping the pace brisk and light. This is helped in no small part by Kevin Spacey, who has a whale of a time with the conniving sci-fi nut Larry Hooper, the harbinger of doom for the unit.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is an entertaining, watchable film, but it is a great example of ‘filmed journalism’ and its potential pitfalls. The dual narrative, for the most part, works like a dream – cutting back and forth between the whirlwind free-spiritedness of the New Earth Army’s genesis and heyday, and the Iraq-based comedy-of-errors that Bob and Lyn are subjected to – but it is about two thirds of the way through, where the flashback stories end, and more weight is given to the present-day shenanigans, that the film starts to feel rudderless.
Admittedly, it is never less than peppy, but there is a problem when the film needs to justify its own existence, by having Bob experience, and relate, the tale. This is more convoluted than it needs to be, with a final act reinvention of the New Earth Army, and a last-minute hurrah for Django’s hippy utopianism, feeling like a compromise in the name of a tidy ending.
It doesn’t hurt The Men Who Stare At Goats, though, as it is, to the end, a joyous, heartfelt film, full of pleasing performances and chucklesome writing. Its tone is pitched just right, with each cheeky montage sequence, furrowed brow of concentration, or straight-faced citation of the paranormal hitting a sweet, comic note.
Misgivings about its conclusion aside, the film feels like it knows its place in the world, tipping the hat to both the book and a previous Channel 4 documentary for their more factual takes on the subject, while revelling in the barminess of the whole thing. Its worldview is optimistic, hopeful – respectful of the inclusiveness and positivism at the heart of Django’s ideology – with a sense of satire that is never mean-spirited or bitter.
It even works a bit of magic of its own, making Boston’s More Than a Feeling, which rings out over the credits, sound utterly wonderful in context.