I’m not sure how much of The Men Who Stare at Goats is true. It’s inspired by Jon Ronson’s book, which documents a time when the U.S. military encouraged a select few in its ranks to hone their psychic abilities, believing, however inaccurately, that the Russians were doing the same. But what transpires in the movie, directed by Grant Heslov (HBO’s Unscripted) and starring George Clooney, is so flagrantly over-the-top it seems like a lunatic riff on the facts.
That’s not a bad thing. Goats is a consistently funny diversion that follows small-time journalist Wilton (Ewan McGregor) as he attempts to break the story of a lifetime. His subject is Lyn (George Clooney), the army’s paranormal superstar and the only soldier thought capable of killing a goat with powers of the mind.
Lyn isn’t particularly proud of that – he regrets offing the goat, if indeed he was responsible for its passing, and fears his foray into the Dark Side has put a curse on his military cohorts. As his military career draws to a close, Lyn seems intent on redeeming himself, and Peter Straughan’s script obliges him.
Foremost among Lyn’s New Earth Army colleagues is Bill (Jeff Bridges), a hippie burnout of an army general who seems to be channeling the spirit of The Dude from The Big Lebowski as he trains his subordinates in the ways of kinder, gentler combat. Bill, who sports a long ponytail and has no military bearing whatsoever, doesn’t seem interested in hurting a fly, much less in refining America’s deadly powers of tekekinesis. At this point in his career, Bridges could play guys like Bill in his sleep.
Less amiable is Larry (Kevin Spacey, at his sardonic best), the wannabe psychic who undermines Bill at every turn. Both fancy themselves Jedi Knights and act accordingly, with predictably absurd results. But even as Bill finds a prodigy (and, it seems, a soulmate) in Lyn, Larry is coldly efficient in destroying their paranormal fun.
Whether Goats is based in reality is ultimately irrelevant. It’s entertaining and often hilarious; why should it need to be anything more? The inmates here are running the asylum, trying to walk through walls (literally) because they’ve been trained to believe that they can. When they fail, as inevitably they do, it doesn’t deter them. They are Jedis, or so they think, and though the Force may elude them, their belief is unshaken. Yoda would be puzzled, but proud.