Like its protagonist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) this movie can’t decide if it should mercilessly mock the idea of an Army unit researching psychic phenomena as an alternative to war or cheer for the collection of oddballs who threw their lives into the endeavor. Director Grant Heslov tries to have it both ways and comes close to pulling it off.
Right before the first Gulf War, Wilton was a newspaper reporter whose personal life had gone to pieces when his wife dumped him for his editor. Desperate for a change, and to prove himself to his ex-wife, he gets himself assigned to the war zone. Initially frustrated in his quest to get where the action is, he stumbles on an ex-Special Forces soldier named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who starts to regale him with stories of a top secret group called the New Earth Army. This was a unit of “Jedi Warriors,” in his words, who were experimenting with the military applications of psychic powers.
I could hear the little man inside me again. He was screaming like a little girl.
According to Cassady, the New Earth Army was the brainchild of Colonel Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), whose near-death experience in Vietnam led him into a decade-long exploration of the New Age movement. When he emerges, he finds a willing sponsor in a general (Stephen Lang) who believes soldiers should be able to walk through walls.
Lyn Cassady was one of Django’s top acolytes, while the other was Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a believer in the “dark side,” the lethal applications of the New Earth Army’s research. This could be the story of a lifetime, if Wilton can just survive the experience of being Cassady’s new best friend.
When this film works, it’s usually when Clooney and McGregor are on the screen together. As Cassady, Clooney masks the maniacal gleam of a true believer behind a matter-of-fact demeanor worthy of Jack Webb. McGregor seems to careen between appalled skepticism and wide-eyed wonder several times in every scene. It’s hard to tell, however, if the other parts of this move don’t make sense because the movie doesn’t make any sense or just because Lyn Cassady is crazy and not just a little full of shit.
Based (very, very) loosely on a non-fiction book about actual Cold War research by our very own Department of Defense, this film shakes its head at the absurdity of the whole exercise while simultaneously having a soft spot in its incredulous heart for the borderline wackos who invested their heart and soul into pursuing it. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a flawed, somewhat confused movie, but if you are in the right mood, or at the right blood alcohol level, it might be worthy of a rental.