The Men Who Stare at Goats: Disarmingly Funny, Vaguely Unsettling

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Some movies have a premise too ridiculous to be true, and it ends up ruining what would otherwise be a great film. There’s a rarer breed of film, however, that has a premise that is too ridiculous not to be true. The Men Who Stare at Goats is just such a film, and it’s not afraid to put that fact in your face by slapping the message, “More of this is true than you would believe,” across the opening scene.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a (partially) fictionalized, comedic retelling of Jon Ronson’s book of the same name, which reveals the bizarre story of US military exploration into the combat potential of supernatural powers. The whole project was an actual real life attempt to create “super soldiers” with psychic powers. The reason for this research starting in the first place seems to be that classic Cold War excuse: “the Russians are doing, so we better do it.”

With this premise, the movie creates a story that is one part historical retelling, and one part apocryphal continuation. It’s a plot that often finds the fictional portions coming out more believable than the facts. Ewan McGregor stars as Bob Wilton, a journalist out on the lamb after his wife leaves him for their one-armed boss. Desperate to prove himself after his emasculating heartbreak, he travels to Iraq, and runs into one of those real life super soldiers. His name is Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney, and he is a man on a mission. The two team up on a surreal journey through deserts and war-scarred cities while Cassady details the story of the rise and fall of the organization that trained him, the First Earth Battalion.

The leader of the unlikely Battalion, and Cassady’s mentor, is played by Jeff Bridges. In his role as Bill Django, Bridges is nothing short of a messianic uber-Dude, or what the Dude might have become after a few more head trauma-inspired epiphanies. Django not only abides, but he has an army of cadets training to do the same. His wisdom is given as a series of flashbacks by the wholly earnest Cassady, and they contain many of the films best scenes. How many of these scenes are inspired by truth, however, may never be known.

Goats is a film that works wonders thanks in no small part to the simple honesty of its opening statement. There are truths here, and they are more true than any rational person would suspect. Half the fun of the movie is trying to figure out which ridiculous, unbelievable nonsense is made up, and which is stone cold fact.

Consider, for example, these two ideas both espoused by the movie, and both potentially fact: one, that there was a group of super soldiers jokingly called “Jedi.” Two: these men were trained to kill goats by staring at them and waiting for them to drop dead. Given the choice between the two, it would seem a no-brainer. Certainly it’s much easier to believe that some Star Wars geek in the army got to title something, over the possibility that tax payer dollars were spent on research in what amounts to mind bullets. Of course, the movie does have its title for a reason.

Remember, after all the laughs, that the truth really is out there. There are brief scenes of Iraqis being tortured with the use of strobe lights and Barney songs at high volume. Like so many other of the weirdest absurdities, this one, also, is fact.