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The Men Who Stare At Goats (Mark’s take)

1/1/2010. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Men Who Stare At Goats in the USA - or Buy The Men Who Stare At Goats in the UK

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This is the most bizarre look at how mad the military can be since CATCH 22. The United States military maintains a core of people who claim to have psychic powers. The trappings are fun: men who can run through walls, stare goats to death, and can give deadly forehead taps. But there is not much plot or story here to hang them on. Through the whole film one has the feeling that the real story is just about to begin, but like the original military project, we go nowhere and nothing ever comes of anything.

Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

"More of this is true than you would believe." This is the statement that starts the film. Perhaps it is true, and it might not take a lot to convince me. Back when I was working for a major telecommunications corporation the management invested heavily in pseudo-scientific pop-psychology exercises and the medical department touted the value of magnetic bracelets. The moral is that people in positions of responsibility are easily fooled by others and by themselves.



There was a time that both the Americans and the Soviets believed that there might actually be some truth to psychic claims and both sides did what in retrospect were absurd experiments in parapsychology. Perhaps to some degree it made sense. There may be a very low probability that anybody could prove and exploit mystic powers, but if there was truth to the claims neither side could afford to allow the other to gain a large psychic advantage. THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is a fiction film based on the supposedly non-fiction book of the same title by Jon Ronson. It is about the bizarre cadre of men who claimed to have psychic powers who were paid by the government to see if they could find a strategic use of these mystical powers.

Bob Wilton (played by Ewan McGregor) is a Michigan newspaperman sent to interview a local man who claims to have the power to kill hamsters by just staring at them. He claims to have used this power in the military and to have known a very gifted psychic at that time. That was Lyn Cassady. Later Wilton coincidentally meets Cassady (George Clooney, looking like J. Jonah Jameson from SPIDER-MAN) and travels with him to Iraq to see him use his claimed powers.

The story follows their current adventures in Iraq and in flashback tell Cassady's story in the experimental "New Earth Army." This elite group, led by the Timothy Leary wannabe Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who trains his people to read minds, pass through solid walls, and to kill with a stare or a tap on the forehead. Meanwhile another bizarre psychic, Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), tries to use the situation for his own advancement.

The problem with Peter Straughan's adaptation of the book by Jon Ronson is that in spite of its shocking view, and its eccentric characters and situations, the promised story never forms itself. The viewer (and the main character) just spends some time among some strange people. We see a few short segments that tell some of what happens in the training, but it is all kept at arm's distance. Rather than moving toward any sort of conclusion about all that has happened, the film builds to an uninteresting episode of group LSD in the Iraqi desert and then suddenly the film is over.

This film could have been a very sharp attack on the credulity of the leaders of the United States military, a sort of latter-day DR. STRANGELOVE. But it ends up squishy-soft and undirected. Where it should be saying this was a waste of taxpayer money, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS just says that there are some real wackos in the world. But you probably knew that already. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper

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