The Men Who Stare at Goats
Produced by Smoke House and BBC Films
Directed by Grant Heslov
Screenplay by Peter Straughan from the book by Jon Ronson
Distributed by Overture Films
I’ll say this for The Men Who Stare at Goats, the delightful new film from first-time director Grant Heslov and his producing partner, George Clooney: It wastes no time getting to the point. It opens with a close-up of the wondrously named Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) glaring ferociously at the wall across from his desk, his sweat-swathed face apoplectically red. Is he about to have an aneurysm, or will he blow his brains out? Neither. Stepping from behind his military-neat in-box, he abruptly sprints toward the wall. After making loud contact with said wall, he falls to the floor, where he lies silent for a few disconsolate moments. You see, he was sure his body would slip through the functional cinder block as would a sylph’s through silk brocade.
By the time the film ends another man will attempt the same feat, and the outcome either will or will not confirm whatever it is this evanescently gossamer narrative has on its mind. I don’t mean to suggest the movie is fey, but it does seem incapable of supporting a definite thought, let alone a theme. And that is its charm.
The film’s source is Jon Ronson’s book of the same irresistible title. Ronson, a journalist who writes for the British newspaper the Guardian, tells the story of the U.S. Army’s dabbling in psychic alternatives to military hardware. In the 1980’s, Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III fell under the influence of Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who, in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, convinced him that it was time to try a new tack. Conventional war was no longer viable; the Army must harness a panoply of New Age nostrums and ninja-warrior techniques. Soon, Channon claimed, field soldiers would have the powers necessary for levitation, psychokinesis, and invisibility. And that was just for starters. As they cultivated these powers, GIs would take on the nation’s enemies with “sparkly eyes” and “automatic hugs,” shooting them with so much positive energy there would be hardly any need to engage in warfare at all. Of course, there would always be a recalcitrant few, but they could be vanquished with the superior battle methods to be acquired through Buddhist meditation and ninjutsu. Channon named his platoon The First Earth Battalion and staffed it with men he was glad to call his Jedi warriors.
When Ronson came upon Channon’s story, he immediately recognized its humorous potential and milked it for all it was worth, adopting the persona of a journalist bemused by what he happened to come across in his travels. As for the validity of Channon’s claims, Ronson remains studiously agnostic, thereby enhancing both his report’s intrigue and its humor. Screenwriter Peter Straughan follows suit, beginning his narrative with an admirably turned evasion: “More of this is true than you would believe.” Indeed. Ronson’s book has been turned into a charmingly lightweight comedy, garnished with a soupçon of satire to enhance the flavor.
Here’s the story, such as it is. Under Heslov’s creative wand—the same one he used to fictionalize (somewhat deceitfully, it must be noted) the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy in Good Night, and Good Luck three years ago—Ronson has been transformed into a feckless Ann Arbor journalist named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who is sent out to cover a human-interest story. There’s a local man who claims to have the power of “remote viewing,” a skill he originally learned as a member of the Army’s Psychic Warrior brigade. Wilton concludes that the man is certifiable, but he’s nevertheless mildly impressed when he witnesses him using his power of telepathy to knock a hamster off its pins. Upon questioning, the psy-warrior says his feat is nothing special. Why, one of his psychic buddies could glare a goat to death. A few improbable plot complications later, Wilton finds himself in Iraq interviewing the goat-killing prodigy, Lyn Cassaday (George Clooney). Wilton wheedles, and Cassaday agrees to illustrate his various psychic talents. To do so, he proposes to take Wilton into the desert to teach him the way of the Jedi as he himself had been taught by his mentor. Inside jokes don’t come any lamer than this, which is part of the fun. McGregor never falters. He didn’t portray the ultimate Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars without picking up some of the warrior’s legendary self-control. “What’s a Jedi warrior?” he asks innocently enough, as if it were possible there could be anyone on earth who doesn’t know.
As they bowl across the desert in a sedan, Cassaday keeps his eyes on the sky rather than on the featureless sand stretching into the middle distance. When Wilton asks why, Cassaday smiles. “Cloud bursting,” he explains. “It keeps me sharp.” When the particular cloud he’s been watching breaks up, he chortles, “It’s gone,” after which feat, he immediately smashes into a two-foot-high boulder. This is Cassaday all over. His head’s so high in the clouds that terrestrial matters elude him at every turn. And yet his Jedi powers have made him so fearless that he’s usually able to deal with the dangers he recklessly runs into. When they are picked up by some hostile Iraqis, Cassaday assures his new sidekick that nothing bad will happen. He will use sparkly eyed suggestion on their captors. When this seems in danger of failing, he naturally resorts to a Hong Kong ninja leap. How can a man this mad fail?
Clooney once again proves to be a master farceur. As in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading, he is peerless at playing daft bumblers who, against all evidence, think they have everything under control. Here he has acquired his talent for unwarranted confidence from his mentor, Lt. Col. Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, playing the film’s version of Channon). Clooney and company decided to fictionalize Channon, perhaps to give themselves a freer hand with their evident inventions, or maybe out of fear of being sued for misrepresenting what is surely itself Ronson’s sustained exercise in misrepresentation.
In any event, Bridges plays Django as the daddy of mad gurus. He’s so utterly convinced of his project that he’s able to persuade the military’s honchos to give him funding and men to carry out his noble plan. As he sees it, “The world’s superpower needs superheroes.” He loses support in 1989, however, when he makes a tactical error. He cheerfully assures his superiors that one of his trained psychic warriors can locate Gen. Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian thug-in-chief who went missing when his former patron, George H.W. Bush, grew testy about his performance. After deep meditation, Django’s man tells the Army’s brass that they should . . . This comic stroke is too good to give away.
Accounts vary, but it seems the Army has spent many, many millions of our money on psychic research and may still be investigating its possibilities. They have consulted with frauds such as Uri Geller, the Israeli spoon bender whom Johnny Carson exposed on his show in 1973, well before some of Channon’s loonier forays into psychokinesis retailed in this film. How to explain the military’s infatuation with this nonsense? If your business is killing and being killed in war, you might not unreasonably come to yearn for bloodless alternatives. Django, we learn, had a battlefield epiphany in Vietnam the day his troops held their fire while being sniped at by a lone gunman firing at them in plain view. Even when they finally began to fire back, they missed the shooter again and again. Afterward, Django learned that research indicates nearly 90 percent of new recruits will deliberately fire high rather than hit their targets. It seems they don’t want the responsibility of killing, at least not at first. This led Django to wonder if there was some way he could take this innate gentleness and turn it to military account. His answer: Train mystic warriors who, whenever possible, will fight with their minds rather than their weapons.
Loopy? Undoubtedly. But the appeal of such a notion is perhaps not as improbable as it might at first seem. Many years ago, I visited Camp Lejeune to see a friend who had joined the Marine Corps. At the base’s bar that night, I met a lieutenant who had been reading the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. This man, who had been trained to kill with a formidable assortment of weapons, including his very own hands, waxed eloquent about The Divine Milieu and Chardin’s speculation regarding the noosphere, his term for a technologically assisted neural network that would gather our entire species together into a snug telepathic embrace. We were marching, this Marine assured me, toward a shimmering collective understanding.
After a few drinks, I was impressed by the fellow’s eloquent commitment to universal peace. In the sobriety of the next morning, however, I had my doubts. I reflected that he had something in common with Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. He was a voice in the wilderness pouring forth the collective hope of all dreamers since men began to lift their eyes from troublesome boulders in the desert to the inviting clouds above. Well, why not? Why wouldn’t anyone intimately acquainted with the iron reality of war prefer the soft, vaporous clouds on high?
Goats has none of Conrad’s ironic pessimism. It’s a jaunty little film that takes its principals at their word, or at least pretends to. Cassaday and Django may be daft, but, unlike many a war tactician one could name, they would never willingly send underequipped young men into a meaningless battle.
About those goats: Near the film’s end we witness Cassaday furrowing his brow and knocking one over by sheer mental force. Quite a display! But you should know this: There’s a species of the animal known as fainting or myotonic goats. They suffer from a genetic anomaly that makes them unusually sensitive to surprise. When startled, their muscles freeze, and they instantly fall over. You can understand how inviting a spectacle this would make for minds suitably disposed.