Some books are naturals to be adapted into films, while others aren’t. Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, which tracks the history of military programs designed to investigate the possibility of paranormal sciences like telekinesis having military applications, unfortunately falls into the latter group. It’s not for a lack of trying however, its just that Grant Heslov’s resulting film is a bit of a scattered mess.
With his marriage falling apart, newspaper man, and book author Ronson-substitute, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) stumbles across what may be the story of the year- That the military had spent years and millions of dollars on an initiative designed to produce soldiers with super powers. Pursuing a lead all the way to the Persian Gulf, he has a chance encounter with Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, sporting a mustache that makes him look like Dennis Farina), who offers to take the journalist into war torn Iraq to supply proof of the top-secret program’s existence.
But this modern day story line is just a skeleton to hang the meatier, more farcical tale of the program’s history, told in flashback by Lyn to Bob as the two make their way across the desert. The program’s roots stretch back to the Vietnam War and one Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who manages to sell his superiors on the idea that US soldiers could be equipped with a variety of paranormal abilities up to and including the ability to stop a goat’s heart telekinetically. (Just in case we ever go to war with goats, I guess.)
There are plenty laughs to be had at the juxtaposition of Django’s hippy, trippy New Age-y training techniques against the rigidity of traditional military training. And there are the metatextual chuckles to be had at Star Wars prequel star McGregor expressing disbelief in a program designed to create real world “Jedi warriors.” Some of the absurdities are left for the audience to discover. A careful observer will note that the all the members of the doesn’t-officially-exist army unit still have a special unit patch on their uniform.
While Clooney has always been known as a sex symbol and a fine dramatic actor, he works his comedy chops to good effect here. Using the maxim that less is more, he infuses his character with such a sense of belief in his supposed powers that at times we are tempted to believe in them too. But much like his performance in the Ocean’s movies, it is the small things, twitches, line deliveries and reactions, that illicit laughs.
Even at a short 90 minutes, the film does manage to drag a bit at the end when it abandons its flashback structure as Bob and Lyn reach their destination, a military installation being run by another former member of the program played by Kevin Spacey. This is the section where characters are supposed to redeem and redefine themselves, but the film doesn’t quite deliver on this as some of the character arcs are never fully developed to begin with. Unfortunately, it leaves the finale of the film as vague and undefined as the results of the military program it chronicles.