“More of this is true than you would believe.” –Opening title card.
War is about killing and violence. But what if it didn’t have to be?
That apparently was the thinking behind a brief and unconventional New Age experiment in the military that was chronicled in British reporter Jon Ronson’s book “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
Purportedly, it chronicled a top secret US Army unit founded in 1979 called the First Earth Battalion. This clandestine group dabbled in mindreading, extra sensory perception, astral projection and all manner of practices that would seem downright fanciful for a military operation.
Writer Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”) and actor Grant Heslov (“Good Night and Good Luck”), making his feature directorial debut, mine this premise to exploit its potential comic absurdity.
Ewan McGregor (“Amelia”) portrays a struggling newspaper reporter named Bob Wilton. Desperately seeking a story to revive his sagging professional and private life, Bob heads for Middle East during the beginnings of the Iraqi conflict.
In a Kuwaiti hotel, he meets a mysterious man named Lyn Cassidy, played by George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”). After striking up a conversation, Bob ultimately learns that Lyn was a part of the aforementioned First Earth Battalion. Sensing that he and Bob share a cosmic connection, Lyn agrees to smuggle Bob into Iraq. He was headed there, anyway.
It seems that some kind of mental image has drawn Lyn to the scene. He’s convinced that he’s going there to meet with the former leader of the ESP squad, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges from “Iron Man”).
On their perilous journey, Lyn relates the story of the First Earth squad, seen mostly in a series of flashbacks. Starting in the 1970s, they practiced mind reading, walking through walls and making goats faint with a stare, all to see if there were military applications for having these “superpowers.” (Of course, mind-altering drugs enhanced many of their experiences.)
One of the participants in this bold experiment was a troublemaker named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey from “21”). Decades later, he’s still fouling the extra-sensory waters.
The real appeal of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” lies in its cast. It’s great to see these three veterans, Clooney, Spacey and Bridges, add zip to their oddball characters.
Clooney is terrific, managing to somehow be simultaneously loopy and convincing.
While it never achieves the satiric heights it aims for, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is a modestly diverting anti-war comedy. (R) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it