Two men, each determined to cross the border from Kuwait into Iraq for reasons they find compelling to themselves, wait with some impatience to get going. One is a man whose consciousness has been expanded beyond the quotidienne, and the other, a man whose consciousness has been contracted to the confines of his own psyche by abject despair. They meet up in what might be chance or kismet or some combination of the two and begin an adventure whose object is less than well defined. The quest, however, involves random doodles, secret military ops, hamsters that may or may not have fallen prey to mind control, and the curse that may or may not have been laid when a goat may or may not have been killed telekinetically. This is a film with a lot of ifs, and yet, that is a great part of its charm.
Based on the book by Jon Ronson, and purporting to be, as the disclaimer puts it, more true than it ought to be, the film is an exploration of what happens when old school military meets New Age thinking. It’s all wonderfully bundled together in the person of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a retired Army sergeant and putative Jedi warrior reactivated for a mission in Iraq. The chance or fated encounter is between him and Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a reporter from Ann Arbor, Michigan who desperately wants to cover the war in Iraq in order to win back his straying wife. At an outdoor cafe in Kuwait City, they cross paths and before Bob has the chance to think things through logically, or what is passing for logic at that point, he finds himself in a car in the desert with Lyn, whom he is pretty sure is stark raving bonkers. Then again, transporting oneself from the relative security of the American heartland to a land rent by war because one’s heart has been broken doesn’t necessarily pass the sanity test. And that’s the beauty of the script, which wanders far from the book, but does a slick job of putting assumptions of all types to the test, and resists the temptation to make sport of any of them while still retaining a sense of fun.
Clooney, as the microcosm of the film’s macrocosm, is the perfect symbiosis of perfect absurdity and absolute conviction. That his character does seem to be able to affect clouds and correctly call coin flips with startling regularity puts the audience in Bob’s place, which is being unable to take the wild stories of his unorthodox military training at face value, but not quite able to dismiss them either. In flashback, the unorthodoxy is set forth in the tale of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who fell out of a helicopter in Vietnam and into a set of nagging questions about the nature of the universe. Convincing the Army to let him do a study led to six years of research into nude hot-tub encounter groups, primal arm wrestling and, ultimately, a squadron of New Earth Warriors, dedicated to creating peace and closing the psi-ops gap with the Soviets by fire-walking, yoga, and fine-tuning remote-viewing skills.
Casting McGregor, the erstwhile Obi Wan Kenobi of the second Star Wars trilogy, as Lyn’s Jedi apprentice is a piquant bit of business that doesn’t get in the way of the story as it unfolds. Brave, Bob is not, gullible, Bob is not, given to having his mind opened just a bit, because or in spite of Lyn, Bob is. McGregor maintains a level of simmering but benign emotional chaos that is exactly the right counterpoint to Clooney’s preternatural calm, even in the face of McGregor’s almost continuous presumption of imminent and certain death.
The writing is stiletto sharp, particularly when dissecting normal life, be it civilian or military. Stephen Root explaining to McGregors character about his ability to kill rodents with just his mind is a gem of self-assured eccentricity gone wild. It is at its best, though, when it homes in on the weakness of any organization to fall prey to its lowest common denominator, in the case of the Jedi, a recruit (Kevin Spacey), who chafes at being shunted aside because of his lack of talent, and decides to correct the situation by making a mess of it.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a light-hearted film that should not be taken lightly. As a study of human nature, it spares no one, while still holding out hope that despite history teaching us otherwise, we might one day rise above the worst in us.