Upon hearing about a film entitled The Men Who Stare at Goats:
Reaction #1: That's the stupidest flipping movie title I've ever seen.
Reaction #2: It must be a strange documentary about shepherds in a middle eastern country who commune with goats in some odd mystic way. Like The Story of the Weeping Camel, but with goats, and men who stare at them.
Upon hearing the film starred George Clooney and is based upon a real life military unit that used supposed paranormal activity to create "psychic spies":
Reaction #1: Totally awesome!
Upon actually watching the movie:
Critical reaction #1: Mixed results.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is based upon the book of the same name by journalist Jon Ronson. It stars George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and yes, a goat (or rather several of them). The story follows journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) as he follows Special Forces operator Lyn Cassady (Clooney) into Iraq and learns about a military unit Cassady belonged to called First Earth Battalion which was designed to develop and use the psychic abilities of the soldiers.
It is loosely based on the real First Earth Battalion which in fact was created by the US military to discover and develop a soldier's psychic abilities — something so outlandishly absurd it should make for a hilariously wonderful film. Actual results are varied.
With the character of Jon Ronson, McGregor essentially becomes the audience, an outsider looking in. He injects large doses of skepticism, hardly believing what he is seeing and hearing from the Clooney character. As a viewer I share that skepticism, not really believing any of this could be real. Yet it is real, and Ewan McGregor lets us know it throughout the film. Which actually kind of kills any real potential it has at being brilliant.
The movie is divided between the present day with Clooney taking McGregor on a road trip from where they meet in Kuwait into the deserts of Iraq where the war has just begun, and the past where we see how the New Earth Battalion began and how it developed. McGregor narrates throughout.
The best moments come with Clooney and Jeff Bridges (playing Bill Django, commander of the New Earth Battalion). Clooney is hilarious when he tries to demonstrate his psychic abilities by using the sparking eye technique, destroying cloud formations, determining the location of something far away by using his mind, or stopping the heart of a goat. Bridges plays Django like the Big Lebowski with a license to kill.
Kevin Spacey rounds out the cast as Larry Hooper, also a psychic spy but one who is jealous of Clooney's superior abilities and who ultimately sabotages the unit.
There are lots of funny moments in the movie, but I feel it would have been better served without McGregor's journalist character. His presence often kills the sheer absurdity of the others' actions. Were the story simply to follow the New Earth Battalion from its conception to end with perhaps a small tagline explaining that it is based on a true story, the film would have been much more "out there" and humorous. As it is the movie is enjoyable but ultimately falls flat.
Both the audio and video look and sound good. The audio is mostly dialogue and so any home theater system will not be given a workout. Likewise most of the footage takes place indoors or out in the desert so there isn't much to display, visually, but I didn't notice any problems. On the audio commentary director Grant Heslov notes that they had to digitally remove a lot of plants and tire tracks from the desert scenes and I never noticed any residue from this.
Bonus features include two short documentaries, character bios, deleted scenes, and two audio commentaries.
The best of the documentaries is "Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion" which as its title implies includes interviews with several of the actual psychic spies and what they were trying to do. It is fascinating to see these guys in person and get at least a little understanding into how they think.
"Project Hollywood: A Classified Report from the Set" includes the usual gushing praises about the film from the people who made it.
The character bios are nothing more than a series of trailers for the film, each one concentrating on one of the main characters. The deleted scenes are short and are mostly slight extensions of scenes that made it into the final film.
The first of the audio commentaries features the director and is so dull I couldn't make it all the way through it. He seems to feel his main purpose is to explain the location of each shot as if audiences didn't know that a scene could actually be shot in a variety of locations. The second commentary is from the writer of the book, and is much more interesting. Why they didn't either have these two sit together for the commentary or even splice it together is beyond me. It certainly would have made for a more interesting commentary track.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is an often entertaining look at a bizarre moment in America's military's history that is well made and well acted, but ultimately falls a bit short.