Have you ever talked long enough with a conspiracy theorist that you moved beyond skepticism, past the point of slowly backing away and into the zone of belief? The most convincing have a unique way of tying factual loose ends into a knot of credibility that can be difficult to untangle when it's all over, leaving you with the suspicion that you're the one living a lie of comfortable delusion, not them.
That feeling is at the heart of The Men Who Stare at Goats, based on the book by journalist Jon Ronson. Ronson is played by Ewan McGregor as Bob Wilton, a down-on-his-luck small-town reporter whose wife has left him. Wilton goes to Iraq ' the film takes place near the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom ' in hopes of embedding himself to prove his manhood. In the process, he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a wild-eyed and intense former military man who claims to be a 'Jedi warrior.â?� (The irony of McGregor, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the three most recent Star Wars films, pretending to be puzzled by the term 'Jediâ?� is worth a chuckle.) Cassady claims he's the product of a secret military operation from the early '80s that trained soldiers to channel psychic abilities and New Age energy to bring peace to the world. Their efforts were corrupted, however, when a slimy Sith (Kevin Spacey) infiltrated the group and took it over, retraining the warriors to kill with their minds.
Together the two men wander through the Iraqi desert, getting kidnapped, getting lost and tripping out. To further cloud the reality/fiction aspect, director Grant Heslov, who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck, and screenwriter Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) take us on a tour through the weirder corners of George W. Bush's war: Blackwater randomly firing at civilians in Nisoor Square; American military psy-ops (Pentagon jargon for the Psychological Operations unit, but in the movie it's Psychic Ops) using Barney the dinosaur and strobe lights to torture captives; the Special Forces training medics by working on goats; and historical periods of government-sanctioned psych oddities like Project MK Ultra.
By throwing both paranormal rumors and sadly true events at the wall, the writer and director make the whole production feel like a messy experiment ' but one that, nonetheless, is a lot of fun to partake in. Clooney strikes a nice balance of kooky and staid. The exasperated McGregor proves a nice foil but, thanks to his stated desire to 'believe in something,â?� an unreliable narrator. It's a shame, then, that none of it feels especially funny or thought-provoking; Goats is merely a parade of strange events that could stand to be filmed at the same level of eccentricity. What might Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg do with this story, as opposed to Heslov, Clooney's production partner and a sophomore filmmaker? Not to say Heslov drops the ball; he just doesn't play with it much.