The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with a wonderful disclaimer: “More of this is true than you would believe.” Most films use phrases like “Based on a true story” or “Inspired by actual events” as a fig leaf for outrageous liberties with little connection to reality. The real incidents behind The Men Who Stare at Goats indeed seem stranger than fiction, but the demands of formulaic three-act screenwriting sabotage the film’s mission.
Based on the book of the same name by Welsh journalist and documentarian Jon Ronson, the film completely reimagines Ronson as Michigan reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). Personal crises inspire Wilton to attempt to cover the 2002 invasion of Iraq. While languishing in Kuwait City and envying the embedded war correspondents, Wilton meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Cassady turns out to be a veteran of the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion, which attempted to train psychic soldiers.
Flashbacks show how Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), after spending 1970s drifting through the New Age movement, founded the battalion to develop “Jedi warriors” capable of astral projection and killing goats with their minds. Bridges amusingly enlists his Lebowski shtick as an Army officer committed to peacenik ideals, while Wilton and Cassady occasionally make able comedic foils as they wander through Iraqi war zones. Cassady attributes psychic explanations for natural occurrences and keeps scaling down his supposed superpowers. He mentions being trained in invisibility but fudges it to "not being seen." Clooney deadpans Cassady’s wild claims, so you’re never sure what the character truly believes, but McGregor fails to draw anything interesting out of his callow role. Tapping young Obi-Wan Kenobi as a Jedi skeptic seems no more than an elaborate in-joke.
Where Three Kings cast Clooney in a wartime caper story to critique the first President Bush’s Iraq war, Goats attempts to use hippie-style anti-authority comedy to satirize his son’s sequel. The early sight gags of super-macho G.I.s failing to run through walls or drive blindfolded don’t mesh with the film’s anger over the corporate exploitation of the Iraqi occupation. Director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan attempt to redeem the characters through some Pyrrhic victories that make for a groaningly lame resolution. If only filmmakers had the clairvoyance to predict how to make good on their intriguing premise.