I’m positive there is a good movie buried somewhere deep inside The Men Who Stare at Goats. Sadly though, I looked and I listened and, yes, I even stared, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.
Lore is filled with stories of the military conducting crazy sounding experiments. We’ve all seen footage of people riding rocket sleds to test human capacity for handling enormous accelerations – as well as reports of the ensuing concussions, cracked ribs, and lost dental fillings.
There have been experiments such as DARPA’s “Inner Armor” project with the goal of making soldiers “kill-proof” against infectious diseases, radioactive weapons, and temperature and altitude extremes. And, lest I forget, the creative idea of boosting soldiers’ night vision by feeding them the livers of walleyed pikes.
Seeming to have most inspired The Men Who Stare is research into using psychoactive drugs such as marijuana and LSD to disable enemy soldiers – to make them either die laughing or run around in circles with the munchies? – and the Pentagon’s roughly $20 million ESP research project where soldiers would be asked to conjure visions of bunkers in faraway lands.
I recount these matters because they truly are interesting and peculiar. They could’ve made for a great comedy about the military in the way Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H are great. But something went wrong. Those movies are funny and engaging and they have characters that we enjoy watching as they get caught in the muck of war. But The Men Who Stare has none of those things.
The story follows a newspaperman entangled with a new age army unit, a top secret team of paranormals being trained as stealth weapons. They can, supposedly, spy at a distance and kill by the power of their sight alone as well as penetrate enemy lines in spirit if not in body. And they can also stare at goats until they fall over dead and they can run through walls – if they believe they can.
To be sure, the movie has an attractive cast. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, and Jeff Bridges? But the writers have been so lazy with their characters that it made me wince. Clooney plays a suave loony as always. McGregor watches as soldiers train to be Jedi masters with plenty of winks and asides. And Bridges simply reprises The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
I most knew the movie wasn’t working during one particular scene. McGregor and Bridges are driving across the desert. Suddenly, they crash into something. Then we see that the car has crashed into a rock. McGregor says, “You had the whole desert to drive in. How could you hit a rock?” Of course, the whole comically mistimed moment is built on a pun – “a rock” in Iraq. Get it? Don’t worry. I didn’t laugh either.
After watching a movie, I like to wait a day or so before writing a review. Oh, I’ll know immediately if I liked it or not, but it’s the scenes and moments that are still stuck in my head a day or two later that are truly what I most loved or most hated about the movie.
I knew I was in trouble though with The Men Who Stare when its total lack of an engaging story and involving characters was causing me to forget what was happening as soon as it finished happening. Wiping my eyes as the lights came up, all I could vividly remember was the many times I had yawned.