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The Men Who Stare At Goats

Glower Power: The Men Who Stare At Goats

War may or may not be an inevitable component of civilization, but over the millennia mankind has been unable to get away from it for very long. If we can’t avoid war, what’s the next best thing? How about finding ways to fight wars that don’t hurt anybody?

This radically out-of-the-box idea was proposed in the late 1970s by Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon, a Vietnam veteran who had spent much of the previous decade investigating various new age movements and philosophies. He proposed the institution of a “First Earth Battalion,” made up of warrior monks whose allegiance would be to the planet Earth before any single nation. His “super soldiers” would study spirit-projected remote viewing, walking through walls, using visual aesthetics to calm enemies and, when combat seemed inevitable, subduing your opponent with sparkly eyes.

Surprisingly, his theories were given something of a tryout within the US military; that they led nowhere is all too sadly obvious. To the extent that they had any effect at all, it was to inspire new torture techniques, like subjecting detainees to an endless loop of the Barney the Dinosaur song at high volume.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a book by Jon Ronson, British journalist and occasional contributor to NPR’s This American Life. Based primarily on interviews with soldiers who claim to have been part of these Army programs, the book has been criticized for Ronson’s failure to provide supporting proof for the stories he relates.

It’s hard to see how Ronson could have verified much of this stuff: I can’t assume that the Pentagon is eager to have these stories splashed around the media. And of course some stories are so good that you can’t help but repeat them, as long as you properly inform whoever you’re telling it to that it may just be a crock. There’s a story about a practical joke George Clooney once played on his friend Richard Kind involving the latter’s cat. I have no idea whether or not it’s true, But I still tell it to people all the time.

Clooney and his partner Grant Heslov (making his directorial debut) are the driving forces behind the film version of The Men Who Stare at Goats, and it’s a match made in movie heaven. Think of it as the third part of a triangle that also includes Three Kings and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Set in Iraq circa 2002, the film stars Clooney as former Army Sergeant Lyn Cassady, man on a mission. Determined to make his way from Kuwait into the war zone, he agrees (for reasons that only later become clear) to bring with him Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), an unseasoned reporter. Along the way, he tells Wilton the history of his involvement with the “New Earth Army,” a project based at Fort Bragg to develop soldiers who were the equivalent of Jedi knights (a subject McGregor is certainly familiar with, though not his clueless character.)

The Channon character, renamed Bill Django, is played by Jeff Bridges. Fans of The Big Lebowski will see The Dude in a uniform, and they won’t be entirely wrong, though Django has more passion for changing the world than the laid-back-to-a-fault Lebowski.

Most of the first two-thirds of the movie is given to these flashbacks and it’s both fascinating and very, very funny. At least I thought so: Maybe you won’t see the humor in a man trying to give a hamster a heart attack by staring at it. But the screenplay by Peter Straughan (who borrows more than a bit from the classic 1978 comedy The In-Laws) fails to solve the problem of how to merge these stories into a dramatic whole, and the finale is a letdown.

(Although I didn’t know it when I was watching the film, the finale and the entire frame story with reporter Bob are entirely fictitious, created to give the film some shape. This tension between reality and drama is one you won’t be able to get away from at the movies this weekend: It figures into the biopic Coco Before Chanel, the faux reality-based The Fourth Kind, and even A Christmas Carol, with its computer-generated, motion-captured characters.)

Verisimilitude aside, The Men Who Stare at Goats does succeed at a goal that isn’t clear until late in the film, after the New Earth Army program has been taken over by one of its less altruistic members (played by a suitably snaky Kevin Spacey). We spend most of the movie laughing at these absurd experiments, but in the end you can’t help but admire them. After all, no attempt to achieve peace is ever so ridiculous as not to be noble.

Watch the trailer for The Men Who Stare At Goats

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