“Is this really based on facts?” a fellow critic asked the studio rep at the screening of The Men Who Stare At Goats. “Does it matter?” I responded, and I was right, it doesn’t. Whether it’s factual or just a riff on the craziness of modern military and contemporary culture, it turns out that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a witty and engaging satire in the same vein as the classic war films M*A*S*H, Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22.
Under the leadership of Bill Django ( Jeff Bridges), a gray-haired hippie with a long braid and a great ’70s iconic lightbrown fringed leather jacket, the U.S. Army funded a squadron of psychic warriors in the 1970s, the New Earth Army, codename: Project Jedi. The squad included star psy-warrior Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) and frustrated sci-fi writer Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, in one of his best roles since The Usual Suspects).
The film opens with the goofy Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang) staring intently at the camera and then jumping up and announcing to the office that it’s time to move into the next office. He runs full speed into a wall, fully convinced he’s going to travel through it based on his own psychic training, and it doesn’t quite work out as he expects.
We then meet reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) as he learns that his wife is leaving. The transitional scene doesn’t go well at all, and Wilton explains, “I did what so many men have done throughout history when a woman has broken their heart: I went to war.”
His going to war drops him in Kuwait City, stuck in an amusingly banal hotel, spending most of his time sitting out by the pool and lying to his estranged wife that yes, he is already at the front. Through happenstance he recognizes Cassady and gets the break he needs: the two of them rent a car and drive across the border into Iraq.
There are many funny scenes in the film. Notable was the scene where Hopgood explains that the Russians have pulled ahead in psy warfare because they were tricked into thinking that the Americans already had a program, but now that they are ahead, we need to create a crash program and catch up. Classic cold war logic. Conspiracy theorists will appreciate a brief scene from Area 51 too.
The entire film unfolds with lots of sight gags, much dry satire (be on the lookout for the epic Battle of Ramadi) and a surprisingly engaging storyline that, for this Boulder resident, rings just close enough to possible that it left me wondering, just a bit, whether it might not be based on truth after all.
Whether or not there’s a grain of truth, I’ll say this: The Men Who Stare At Goats is one of the best military satires I’ve seen in many years, a story ultimately about redemption and transformation. But then again, my Jedi skills tell me that you’re going to go see it, so this entire review might well have been unnecessary.
Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember and sees at least 500 films a year. You can find his longer, more detailed reviews at www.DaveOnFilm.com or follow his movie updates on Twitter as @FilmBuzz.