Some time back in the mid-90s there was a documentary shown on UK television called The Real X-Files. One interviewee was a supposed ex-member of a CIA taskforce that had been trained to ‘see’ or ‘remote view’ locations with nothing more than a longitude and latitude figure to guide them. It all seemed so tantalising and oh, how we wanted to believe. Ok, maybe it was just me. The Men Who Stare at Goats looks back on this superstitious period of primetime entertainment with affectionate humour, but unfortunately not much more than that.
Ewan McGregor (cheekily given billing in the opening credits over a picture of Saddam Hussein), digs out his dodgy but just tolerable American accent to play Bob Wilton, a small town American newspaper hack who finds that his wife is leaving him for his editor. In the throes of a broken heart he packs off to Iraq to get some real reporting action in the first Gulf War. However, his inexperience means he isn’t given entry to the warzone and he holes-up in a Kuwaiti hotel, listless and making cuckolded phone calls to his ex-wife.
While ruminating on his situation he meets Skip (George Clooney), a fellow American who says he is going into Iraq as a contractor to find business, but his name badge gives him away as Lyn Cassady, a remote viewer who Wilton has heard about from another ex-member of the ‘Jedi’ psychic-warrior program back in the US. Seeing a chance to finally get a story and also prove something to his ex-wife, Wilton persuades Cassady to take him into Iraq.
Officially named the ‘First Earth Battalion’, we are told the program was created by ex-Vietnam veteran Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, channeling a reincarnation of The Dude) to form a warrior who does battle by emanating peaceful, loving thoughts, while still seeing fit to recommend the gouging of eyeballs. With such a blatant contradiction at it’s heart, it is obvious why any credible film had to be a comedy, but comedy still needs a substantial dramatic element to work, and that is where things become a little lightweight.
Welcome laughs come from occasional, old-style slapstick, and also the ridiculous situation in which the US army supported an idea they didn’t believe in, but were funding in true Dr Strangelove style in case the Soviets got there first. Fair enough. The problem is that there are two stories of redemption at work here that dilute, rather than support each other, namely that of Wilton, and later Cassady. The latter falls at the mercy of his old army nemesis, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey in reliable, evil form) on discovering he has resurrected the old program for more sinister methods of application (with echoes of Guantanamo), destroying the ‘beautiful’ concept that Cassady’s hero Django created. There is just a shortness of characterisation and conflict within and between these characters, to make the dramatic element adequately engaging.
That said, it has many moments to bring a smile to your face, and the tone of gentle humour and occasional irony is consistently entertaining. It just needed a little more of the dark-side to balance the light. Jedi in training then, rather than Jedi masters.