Review of The Men Who Stare at Goats
November 17, 2009
A heartbroken reporter stumbles onto a story about cold war Jedi in Iraq to whom no human, rock, or goat is immune. Charming, humorous, and sincere, The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on the allegedly nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson, exercised a bit of mind control over me.
Cold war soldier Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) decides to go to Iraq. During the cold war, America taught Cassady and the other Jedis in the program the finest new-age techniques research could find, including remote viewing and how to literally get into someone else’s mind. On his way to Iraq he meets Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a heartbroken reporter with something to prove to himself. Bob smells a story in Lyn and decides to tag along. Using Lyn’s “special training,” they bumble from one mishap to another.
There are limited desert war zone circumstances that could inspire laughter while staying within good taste. Writer Peter Straughan finds strings his plot points together in a delightfully bizarre way. There is something charming in the way Lyn and Bob are slapped around like a pinball in a machine throughout the movie. They may have put themselves in the chute with the goal of getting in the hole at the bottom, but the path they take is really up to the people using the flappers. The more they rationalize that they have control, the more obvious it is they are a bit delusional.
All of the Jedi, and to a lesser degree Bob, suffer from a wicked case of confirmation bias, but it’s obvious that the writer and director don’t want the audience to just believe in his abilities. Generally, when Lyn uses his training, it’s so obvious there is another explanation that the only people buying it are in the film. His wide eyed, deeply focused, new-age hippy-dippy soldiering cannot be taken seriously. There is no denying that Lyn’s unflinching belief in his training has real effects on reality though.
There is an almost ticklish chemistry between Ewan McGregor and George Clooney. Bob follows Lyn in tow like a little brother because Lyn has undashable confidence and remarkable warmth. McGregor gives Bob a wide-eyed innocence, but he never crosses the line into being utterly daft. Clooney puffs Lyn’s confidence without inflating his ego.
By making Lyn utterly sincere but lovable and obviously ridiculous, the filmmakers have created a comfortable distance between audience and character that allows the viewer to enjoy the silliness. Lyn’s earnestness also creates enough affection in the heart of the audience that they are free to roll their eyes and giggle rather than get annoyed. Even those dedicated to rational thought will not wish an IED on him.
In fact, I think most skeptics would find The Men Who Stare at Goats especially enjoyable because it displays so perfectly how screwed up nonscientific methodology can get. Wise science and logic teachers could play it for their students as a final exam, making them write a ten-page essay on the faults of the methodology and how the claims of the Jedi could be confirmed scientifically. Bonus points could be given for any student who writes about why the government would pay for this type of illogical military program and how scary it is that parts of this are allegedly based on a true story.
It’s rare that an audience is given carte-blanche to laugh at such a lovable a character and can still leave the theater with its IQ fully intact. The Men Who Stare at Goats accomplishes just that. Smart, lighthearted, silly, and charismatic, The Men Who Stare at Goats may make you wish you could remote-view it anytime.