“The Men Who Stare At Goats” is more than just a fun romp based off of an interesting and obscure bit of military history — it’s a rather timely film about going against the grain and finding one’s place in the modern world.
Intestine-rupturingly funny? No. Adrenaline powered, action-packed savagery? No. Going to be a classic? Not really.
Thoroughly enjoyable and greater than the sum of its parts? Yes.
The film is about a journalist Bob (Ewan MacGregor), who feels he is failing life and seeks to cover the beginning of the Second Gulf War. He tags along with Lyn Cassidy (Georrge Clooney), a former soldier with a secret unit that practiced psychic warfare. In Cassidy’s words, they were “Jedi Warriors,” trained in the arts of invisibility, “cloud bursting” and “remote viewing,” as well as perfecting a killer stare (literally).
Bob follows Lyn through present-day Iraq, where they encounter kidnappers, criminals, and other somewhat insane “Jedi Knights” like the supremely entertaining Bob Django (Jeff Bridges), and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).
The best films are always those that leave you thinking about things other than the acting, the cinematography, or the music; they immerse the viewer in the story and make the aesthetics irrelevant. This was definitely one of those films.
One of the best parts about it is the fact that it humorously conveys the silly, interesting and relatively true tale about the U.S. Military’s research into supernatural combat while subtly making some larger points. It’s arguably anti-war, but doesn’t use gruesome detail to beat the viewer over the head with pacifism. Instead, it documents the naturally pacifist psych warfare of the “Remote Viewers,” as they like to be called, who use techniques such as “sparkly eyes” to disarm their foes.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is set against the backdrop of the Iraq War, but doesn’t go out of its way to comment on the politics. It only briefly touches upon the greed of contractors, and notes the struggle of the individual to find their place in the world as well, and also notes that there are always forces at work to tear them down. “The system,” one might say.
Perhaps that’s what makes a fantastic philosophy like a hippie martial arts discipline attractive; much like conventional religions, the way of the soldier monk involved reaching out to the unseen in order to escape the confines of a messy reality. And what could be more timely than reminding us to mind our minds and spirits as we become ever more dependent on technology?
As technology expands our horizons it also confines us in a prison of its own making, redirecting our thinking so that we only focus on getting more or thinking of ways we can become more efficient. Our happiness is no longer the goal; instead, we become focused on the acquisition of things and social conformity, forgetting that these things are only means to an end, not the end itself.
I’m not saying we should all become subsistence farmers and meditate, I’m just saying should we think a little more about what we want from life. I think that’s what the film’s trying to say as well, somewhere in between the killing of livestock via eye contact and the LSD trips.