Just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't judge a film by its title. But The Men Who Stare at Goats is as pathetic and as inane as its name suggests. It is so incomprehensible and muddled that viewing it is pure torture.
Ostensibly, this film is based on a nonfiction book by British journalist Jon Ronson. I have never read Ronson's book but I feel if I did, it wouldn't make any difference. A movie should be judged on its own merits because cinema is an entirely different medium from literature. For instance, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove was adapted from a book, but you don't have to read the book to appreciate this movie's excellence. I don't believe you have to read Ronson's book to appreciate this movie's awfulness.
What's even more appalling about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it has a promising concept. It's supposed to satirize a true period during the 1980s when U.S. military officials and intelligence services tried to conceive warfare through psychic powers. Soldiers would actually try to kill goats by staring hard at them. But the filmmakers completely sabotage this premise.
Ewan McGregor plays a reporter named Bob Wilton whose specialty is offbeat human interest stories. When a veteran tells him about a classified corps of "psychic warriors," Wilton heads for the Middle East to document the early days of the second Persian Gulf war. There, he meets one of the "psychic warriors," Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Lyn exhibits his unique powers for Bob, such as "cloud bursting," looking at thunderheads until they dissipate.
So far, this story seems straightforward, huh? Well, screenwriter Peter Straughan mucks up the plot with distracting flashbacks and meandering subplots. Even more detrimental is the scenario's lack of focus. The film's perspective wavers among narrators so one never knows who the protagonist is supposed to be.
And what is exactly being lampooned? Warfare? Secret government operations? Theories about psychic powers?
The Men Who Stare at Goats ultimately fails as a satire because it lacks a clear-cut target. Grant Heslov's sluggish direction further damages this movie, making it seem much longer than its running 93 minutes. I avoided looking at my watch so I could try to comprehend the film, but I believe that watching the minutes go by wouldn't seem so endless.
A terrific cast, including Clooney, McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, is squandered in this fiasco. Their characterizations are poorly defined and are so trapped in Straughan's sloppy scenario that the actors, for the most part, cannot rise about the material. To sum it up, The Men Who Stare at Goats is an honest-to-goodness turkey for this Thanksgiving season. I did feel genuinely thankful, though, when this movie finally ended.
Now playing at Clearview Beacon Hill 5 in Summit, it is rated R for language, some drug content, and brief nudity.
Raymond Valinoti, Jr. is a resident of Berkeley Heights, NJ. He has a Master's in Library Science from Rutgers University and is a freelance researcher. His articles on film have been published in the magazines Midnight Marquee and Films of the Golden Age. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through Twitter at http://twitter.com/rayvalinoti, and through Facebook at Raymond Valinoti