Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats is Good, Not Great

Almost 20 years ago director Roger Spottiswoode put to the screen an adaptation of an incredible book chronicling some of the crazy, unbelievable things our government, through the CIA, did during the Vietnam War. It was about a group of wild, unruly but brilliant pilots who flew stripped down civilian planes on military missions that NEVER HAPPENED. Drugs, money, weapons -- all to people we weren't supposed to be giving drugs, money, and weapons to. The idea of the movie was to highlight the humor and adventure of the times, rather than showcasing how darkly illegal and immoral it was -- although they never shied away from that. Starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr., the film shared the title of the book, Air America, and was something of a wartime road movie comedy.

The reason I mention this is because The Men Who Stare at Goats is a nearly identical attempt to bring a very good book about very messed up things to the big screen. This time, rather than Gibson and Downey Jr., the film stars Ewan McGregor and George Clooney as the humorous duo, and the story of what they are up to is much further beyond the fringe of a secret force. It is about the military's investigations into psychic super soldiers: Jedi warriors, as they openly refer to them.

Reportedly based upon true accounts, the book -- and portions of the movie -- purport to expose the strange investigations into clairvoyance, telekinesis and, as the title refers to, the ability to stop a being's heart just by staring at them. It is a strange, occasionally goofy comedy about how far a supposed branch of the military named the "New Earth Army" went into trying to activate psychic powers within its soldiers. Drugs, yoga, dance lessons, positive reinforcement -- you know, everything you'd expect from military training. Headed by a crazed hippie, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, the unit supposedly existed in the early '80s and carried on until its sad, embarrassing demise.

Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, one of the New Earth Army's top performers -- a man who had been lost in life until finally finding his place in the world. But when that place is taken away, he listlessly wanders through life until being reactivated -- sort of -- by a vision from his former commander. He's joined by a reporter (McGregor) who is on his own mission to find himself. The two end up in the Iraqi desert, searching for something Lyn won't talk about, while we experience flashbacks and explanations about the NEA and its history.

The film's chief problem for many will be its lack of a distinct plot. There's not much REALLY going on in the film. Effectively it is playing with the classic road movie framework without a real tangible goal to keep the audience glued. However, what is there is very funny, really interesting, and ultimately satisfying. It's a strange little film that won't connect with everybody, but the people who dig it will really get into it. Much like Air America. I was constantly entertained. Everyone in this film is at the top of their game; Clooney is riveting as Cassady and McGregor gives his best wide-eyed wonder as the young reporter getting the biggest story of his life. While not perfect, The Men Who Stare at Goats is an unusual, funny trip into what may be the secret goings-on of the U.S. military. Definitely a film for those looking for something off the beaten path, though the lack of a more defined plot keeps this from being a must-see film.

Grade: B