Nov 10 2009 6:31pm

The Men Who Stare at Goats

In 1967, the CIA conducted Operation Acoustic Kitty, in which it surgically wired up a cat with a microphone and antenna to spy on the Russians. The project is rumored to have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. Its first mission was to spy on a Soviet facility in Washington, DC. Shortly after being released, the cat was killed by a taxi and the project was declared a total loss.

This story—firmly in the so-wacky-it-can-only-be-true category—is just the kind of thing that inspires The Men Who Stare at Goats, a movie about the rise and fall of a unit investigating the military possibilities of New Age spirituality and the paranormal within the U.S. Army in the 1970s and 1980s and its effect on the current war in Iraq. In place of the “a true story” tag that opens so many movies, Goats tells you that “more of this is true than you would believe.” This, like the rest of the movie, is fun and funny, but the tension between what’s real and what isn’t is a tightrope that Goats, unfortunately, can’t quite walk without falling off.

The Men Who Stare at Goats follows the adventures of Bob Wilton, a hapless journalist (played by Ewan MacGregor) who goes to Iraq to prove something to himself and ends up in the hands of Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former (or is he?) member of the paranormal unit, dubbed the New Earth Army. Cassady has swallowed the New Earth Army’s ideology hook, line, and sinker, with surprisingly sweet results: Just underneath the scrambled brain and fatalism, Cassady is a moony idealist who quickly sees Wilton as his protégé, and begins instructing him in—and here I am quoting the movie directly—the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile, Cassady’s mission takes both of them on a trip across Iraq, where they encounter defense contractors, American entrepreneurs who declare the tax-free occupied Baghdad to be “Year Zero” for commerce, and finally, an encounter with the current military that forces Cassady and other members of the paranormal unit to come to terms with their pasts.

The Star Wars parallels are strong in Goats: Along with the Jedi stuff, we have a vision of the Empire, as well as the light and dark sides of the force. More fundamentally, the Star Wars allusions give the movie a sense of morality: As he moves from padawan to knight, Cassady increasingly becomes aware of how he, the paranormal unit, and the U.S. Army more generally, could use the powers they’re developing for good, and how tempting it is for all of them to use the powers for evil. Alongside the Star Wars retelling, however, sits a Dr. Strangelove-era farce, and these two understandings of the same story—as Cassady himself says, “there’s different ways of looking at it, different words for a reality”—don’t quite seem to connect.

I really wanted to like this movie, and it certainly has its moments. George Clooney fans (I’m one) will not be disappointed in his funny and soulful performance here, and fellow actors MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey are clearly having a very good time. (Or if they’re not, then they’re even better actors than I thought.) Yet—as Dr. Strangelove did—Goats seeks more than entertainment; it asks you to take it seriously as commentary on the situation in Iraq and the overall mindset of the military in general. The problem is that, to me, as the movie sets them up, the Stars Wars and Dr. Strangelove strands of the plot undermine each other. One asks you to believe that people can really develop superhuman abilities through strict training and personal discipline—that, as the movie cheekily puts it, people can be all that they can be. The other mocks the ability of anything the U.S. Army does to ever come to any good. More broadly, the movie’s Star Wars parallel invites us to become more politically aware and active members of society, working for peace. The Strangelovian parallel would have you believe that that’s all just a bunch of hippie nonsense. At the very, very end, the scales are tipped toward Star Wars at the expense of Strangelove. Which is nice. But it feels like the easy way out. All through the movie, I kept hoping that the tension between the poles wasn’t just an argument, but a dialectic, so that something at the end would supercede the argument, reform the question, push the ideas further. That, alas, never happens.

It’s a little unfair, of course, to judge a movie for something it doesn’t try to do. But I bring it up because I think that, with some revision, they could have pulled it off. You even see glimmers of it in Clooney’s performance: He plays his role as if Cassady knows the answer, as if he knows how to resolve the tension between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism. But if he does, he’s not telling us.

Brian Francis Slattery has trouble writing in a straight line on a piece of paper in a dark theater.

tony nigro
1. dirtmaster
I watched this film on friday night, and i have to say i was a little disappointed. The trailer made the film look great! plus the cast list made the film seem like it was going to be a great film. But the storyline totley let it done for me.
2. goatstarer
Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stargate_Project for more info on staring at goats. I actually own one of David Morehouse's books on remote viewing, and it's interesting, although I'm not a practitioner.
Brian Slattery
3. brianslattery
@ 1: I agree. This had the makings of a really neat movie, and there were some moments in there where you almost caught a glimpse of that much better film. Almost.
Tudza White
4. tudzax1
Clooney was supposed to kill a goat by staring at it, but he blew it. Doesn't that count as bestiality?

Gee, being a practitioner of remote viewing, isn't that a little like studying for the tooth fairy exams?
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
Your analysis of the movie is excellent, Brian. I have to say that I really liked this movie, but it could have been so much better. The whole Jedi thing was cute a couple of times because of Obi-Wan Kenobi himself playing the reporter, but it wore thin. I kept thinking, "Did they cast Ewan McGregor simply because of his Star Wars connection?" The character of Bob is one that McGregor does so well, but the Star Wars references got really stale.
Brian Slattery
6. brianslattery
@5: Thanks! Yeah, I was wondering about that MacGregor-Kenobi connection myself. It can't be that it's the only reason to have cast Ewan MacGregor in the movie. After all, Mr. MacGregor is both pretty handsome and a talented actor. But clearly the filmmakers were having a lot of fun with it.

I agree with your disappointment as well. That said, I do think that some of the harsher reviews I've read of the movie are unduly harsh. (I managed to avoid all of them before writing my own review.) I don't think the movie was a disaster, nor do I think it was suffocated by smugness. To me, it was an interesting failure—but I'd just as soon watch an interesting failure as a bland success.
8. Christopher Byler
I don't agree with your interpretation at all. It seems to me that Cassady believes he is in the Star Wars-like story, but the viewer is expected all along to remain rooted in reality. Even if you're not imposing your prior knowledge about our universe, it's still pretty clear the NEA are fooling themselves about superpowers, and one goat falling over is not enough to support their claims. I'm not going to spoil how they actually succeed in (temporarily) changing the thought patterns of Hooper and his group, but I think it proves my point. Also, Django's revelation about the eagle feather is, I think, symbolic of the whole NEA effort.

But I think you also misinterpret the Strangelovian side of the movie: it invites the reader to ridicule some of the NEA's beliefs, but every silly thing the NEA does is also a silly thing the military did. The military is just as susceptible to delusions and scams (and for that matter, larger-than-life drama) as anyone, and IMO, the purpose of pointing that out is to debunk the exaggerated respect they still receive in our society, even after a long string of screwups. The contractors and Hooper's company point out that military gullibility hasn't gone away. To me, that reinforces the idea of citizen involvement -- if *this* is what the military does when we're not looking, then we had better start watching a little more closely.

Ultimately, I think the resolution is to sympathize with the NEA's goals, but not join them in their belief in their powers. Django may have been a little loopy, but his heart was in the right place.

Hooper, in my view, is the complete opposite: a deliberate scammer who never believed in the NEA's ideals *or* its powers, but realized he could profit off people who did believe. The gun doesn't just symbolize Hooper's evil, it also proves his lack of faith. The true believers don't fight with guns. Hooper isn't Darth Vader, he's Uri Geller (he even starts off by impressing someone with silverware bending!).
Brian Slattery
9. brianslattery
@8: I totally hear what you're saying, to the point where I'm not sure we're even interpreting the movie all that differently. However, if you believe that "the resolution is to sympathize with the NEA's goals, but not join them in their belief in their powers," then what do you make of the final scene in the movie?
Dru O'Higgins
10. bellman
Is Cassady a reference to Neal Cassady, and the trip across Iraq a reference to On the Road or the Merry Pranksters?
Brian Slattery
11. brianslattery
@10: The Neal/Lynn Cassady thing occurred to me as well. Could be intentional, but it didn't get me anywhere as far as understanding the movie any better. (Also, Lynn's character is very different from what I'm given to understand Neal Cassady was like.)

The trip across Iraq also doesn't much resemble the trip in On the Road. It might somewhat resemble the trips, both physical and psychedelic, of the Merry Pranksters. But again, the specific invocation of the Pranksters, if it's there, didn't get me anywhere that I couldn't get with the general invocation of the American counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. Did anyone else get mileage out of it? Let me know.
Charlie Stross
12. cstross
Personally, I'm skipping the movie. After the book on which it's based (by Jon Ronson), it can only be a disappointment ...
13. Christopher Byler
what do you make of the final scene in the movie?

I don't know, it seems so at odds with the rest of the movie that I'm inclined to not take it seriously at all. (Actually, at first when I saw this question I forgot the epilogue completely and thought you meant the voiceover after the helicopter scene, which has that little sardonic aside that IMO supports my interpretation.) Can you have unreliable narration in a movie?

But maybe I'm just rewriting it into a better movie than it actually was. I was expecting that scene to be a reprise of the early scene that begins in a similar way (trying not to be too specific here but I hope you know what I mean), as I think the audience is intended to expect. I don't really understand the point of reversing that expectation, if there was one. Maybe it was just a gratuitous special effects shot.

I do think it would have been a better movie without the epilogue, now that you mention it, but I wouldn't downgrade the whole movie much on the basis of one short sequence.
Sandi Kallas
14. Sandikal
For Charles Stross and anyone else who has read the book:

I have to know if the Jedi warrior analogy is used as heavily in the book as the movie.
Jon Evans
15. rezendi
Sandikal @14: No.

(The book is nonfiction.)
16. Basho
I had Jim Channon himself (Bill Django in the movie played by Jeff Bridges) leave a comment on my review of the book. It seems he doesn't quite agree with the Ronson version of historical events, especially the connection between the 'Jedi' of the 70's/80's and the 'dark side' of the 90's/00's.

Outside Context - The men who stare at goats

Strange but true!


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