We're told at the beginning of The Men Who Stare at Goats that "more of this is true than you would believe." But the story of the U.S. Army's attempts to harness psychic powers to create super-soldiers is so bizarre it almost HAS to be true, in accordance with the "how could anyone make this up?" principle. In fact, I believe more of this admittedly fictionalized story than I do of The Fourth Kind, which claims to be 100 percent true. Surely there's a lesson in there.
Based on Jon Ronson's nonfiction book, The Men Who Stare at Goats stars Ewan McGregor as Bob Wilton, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003. Bob meets a man named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a private contractor with an unusual past: He claims to have worked for the government as a psychic spy. Bob once met a man, back home in Michigan (played by Stephen Root), who made the same claims, and who named Lyn Cassady as one of his colleagues.
You can see why the military would be interested in psychic spying. Surveillance is a lot less dangerous when you can do it entirely with your mind, rather than having to actually sneak up and eavesdrop on people. And if we could harness things like telekinesis, well, forget about it! We'd beat the Russkies for sure!
Through flashbacks, we learn that in the 1980s, Lyn was mentored by one Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam-veteran-turned-New-Age-hippie who convinced the Army to let him turn soldiers into "warrior monks" through meditation, mind-reading, and so forth. The ultimate goal of this was to be able to kill something with nothing but the power of your mind, hence the goat-staring-at mentioned in the title. Of course, even if you could use the Think System to slay a goat, that doesn't necessarily mean it would work on a person. Still, it's a start.
Django's students also included Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a prickly type who isn't as psychic as he thinks he is, and who's jealous at how much more talent Lyn seems to have for it than he does. All of this stuff went on during the Cold War -- the film has a bit of fun mocking the military paranoia of the day -- but the project never quite died out, and Hooper reappears during the Iraq era to test new applications of it.
Clooney is his usual self, charismatically goofy; Bridges is perfectly cast as a military hippie; and Spacey does that prim, uptight snark that he does so well. McGregor, on the other hand, is likable as always, and game for whatever insanity the movie wants to put him through, but he doesn't make much of an impression amid the funnier, more interesting characters who surround him. Every comedy needs a straight man, sure, but he needn't be forgettable.
Directed nimbly by Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, and written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People), Goats is mildly satirical, and it occasionally endeavors to ask some thoughtful questions about warfare. But mostly it just wants to have a good time. It achieves that well enough, with a quick pace and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, though you might wish it had tried to do something a little more substantial. Then again, it is a movie about men trying to kill goats with their minds. Maybe this is as "substantial" as such a film could be.
(Note: No goats were stared at in the making of this film.)