As goofy as the glint in George Clooney's eye, The Men Who Stare at Goats offers a terrific adaptation of the nonfiction book of the same name, one that chronicles U.S. "alternative warfare" programs. That is, military operations that explore psychic and paranormal techniques to sway the enemy. The title refers to a training regimen in which recruits practice toppling livestock - just by standing there, staring at the critters mightily. The opening credits card says it all: "More of this is true than you would believe."
Clooney is Lyn Cassady, a clandestine "warrior monk" who comes out of retirement post-9/11 and keeps his skill sets honed by "cloud bursting" (staring at cumulus until it breaks up) and other simple telekinetic exercises. It's Operation Iraqi Freedom time, and Cassady, a self-described Jedi knight and "remote viewer" who may just be completely nuts, is in the Middle East to do his part - and to seek out the legendary Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam veteran who several decades earlier preached flower-power philosophy to a special secret Army unit, and who may or may not be in the combat zone. (He's certainly in some kind of zone.)
Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) is Django's rival: a Machiavellian military man, leading his own psych-ops unit in the desert sands. Tagging along with Cassady from Kuwait City into Iraq is a small-time American newspaper reporter, Bob Wilton (a likable Ewan McGregor) - the impartial observer and the movie's narrator, not quite believing the loopy shenanigans he finds himself in the midst of.
There's nothing terribly profound about The Men Who Star at Goats, which makes the men doing the staring all the more endearing for the profound seriousness with which they go about their tasks - like trying to run their bodies through solid walls by sheer force of will. (If you've seen the TV spots and trailers, you've seen the bandage on the bridge of Clooney's nose.) Clooney, channeling Gable and Groucho, is the perpetrator of several drop-dead-funny double-takes. Bridges, seen in Vietnam-era flashback and various stages between then and now, brings his Big Lebowski Dude-ness to the proceedings - a sublime stoner sensibility that spreads like second-hand pot smoke through the theater.
The Men Who Stare at Goats has a glorious good time satirizing the extravagant lengths to which the military and intelligence establishments will go if they think there's a payoff at the other end. The film has been ably, affably directed by Grant Heslov, Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck writing collaborator, and although the McGregor character voice-over device doesn't seem necessary, it does provide a clinical perspective to all the nuttiness under way.
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