DVD Release Date:   March 23, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  November 6, 2009
Rating:  R (for strong language, drug content, brief nudity)
Genre:  Comedy, Adaptation
Run Time:  93 min
Director:  Grant Heslov
Cast:  George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Rebecca Mader, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick

We all know that our government can, does, and will do some pretty crazy things.  Nevertheless, even as we expect lunacy to be a bureaucratic constant, there are occasionally instances where we're still left a bit gobsmacked by certain revelations.  You know, like in the 1980s when the U.S. government believed they could actually train Jedis.

Giving the concept "Star Wars Defense System" a far different (and more literal) meaning than originally intended, a Cold War era top-secret special ops defense department division made the bold effort to develop psychic powers for purposes of war (as Bill Django—head of the division—puts it with a straight face: "We must become the first Superpower to develop super powers.").

Adapted from author Jon Ronson's nonfiction book of the same name, The Men Who Stare at Goats recounts the bizarre history of this enterprise.  While certainly played for broad satire, the perfunctory "based on a true story" opening text is tweaked, strongly suggesting to us "more of this is true than you would believe."  It's left up to us to draw the line between truth and incredulity, but at least the basic facts (though names have been changed) and arc of history are to be believed—which are these.

Called (yes) "Project Jedi", the U.S. Army opened an experimental lab in the late 70s and 80s at Fort Bragg, N.C. in which men would hone "evolutionary tactics" of mind control.  Though military-based, the purpose of the project—called The New Earth Army (changed from the real-life moniker First Earth Battalion) —was actually altruistic, its end goal intending to psychically control or stop aggressors before they could strike.  Or, in simpler terms, to use the Force.

A select group of men believed to have special gifts and strong extrasensory tendencies were recruited.  This is their story, and given its nature it should come as no surprise that the title doesn't merely hold a cryptic, metaphoric meaning but serves rather as a quite literal descriptor. 

These men—"warrior monks" as they were called—stared at goats to exercise their powers, intently and psychically practicing mind control on them, the ultimate achievement being to literally "think" them to death (the success rate was extremely low, in case you were wondering).  Other uses are hinted at (instant cloud dispersal, to name one), and collectively it's what you get when you combine a military mentality with flower power.

More transcendental than tactical, the regimen of Officer Django (Jeff Bridges, in full "Dude" mode, but much closer to enlightenment here) provides some of the film's biggest laughs.  The "Prayer to Mother Earth," for example, is so absurdly perfect that one suspects it must be among the film's historical accuracies; it seems too ridiculously sincere to be anything but true—as is the yoga free-form that substitutes for calisthenics, as well as Django's earnest visionary declarations ("The world needs the Jedi now more than ever!").

All of this is seen (and told) through the lens of an outsider, reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, ironically the film's non-Jedi).  He accidentally stumbles into the story after a chance run-in at a Kuwaiti hotel with the program's most promising recruit, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, in a brilliantly-metered comic turn), though as events unfold we have to wonder if the meeting was mere chance or metaphysical destiny.  Rounding out the cast is Kevin Spacey (about as good as he's been in a decade) as another member of the New Earth Army and Cassady's glory-driven nemesis.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is consistently funny and occasionally inspired (fueled mainly by the stellar cast), playing like a mainstream Coen Brothers film—but it's not quite as good as it could've been, or should've. To the extent it falls short of its potential, the deficiencies are all directorial.  Debut helmer Grant Heslov is George Clooney's long-time producer (they've switched roles for the first time) and his worst offense is that he plays it safe. 

The tone is broad but should disturb more than it does (the few efforts come too late), and so while the laughs are earned they never really bite.  The final act especially stumbles as it strains for nobility, suddenly sentimentalizing characters and actions that had been previously mocked.  It's a bit of schmaltz unbecoming a satire, a genre of which "feel good" should never be a goal. 

Political bias seeps in a bit, too, as these endeavors are seen as well-intended while the prevue of the government, but become "corrupt" once transferred to private contractors.  Wilton's constant voice-over is also too much, filling in blanks and providing context to elements that would be better left enigmas.

So it's not perfect.  So what?  The Men Who Stare at Goats still makes for a good time at the movies, is a solid Hollywood entertainment that avoids formula more than it succumbs to it, and at this time of year when many films are unabashed self-important Oscar-baits it's refreshing to have one entry (from former Oscar nominees and winners, no less) that's main goal is to simply make us laugh.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:   Drug and pot use, though for absurd comedic effect. 
  • Language/Profanity:  Full range of profanities used, including several F-words and occasional uses of the Lord's name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A few instances of brief nudity.  Bare breasts are seen as people sit in a hot tub.  Rear male nudity is shown on two occasions.
  • Violence/Other:  A short scene of warfare.  A man commits suicide (off-screen).  Overall, potentially offensive content is not pervasive (this will make for an easy TV broadcast edit), coming in bursts, but the R-rating is earned.

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.