Historical cataclysm produces conspiratorial thinking: Germany's loss in World War I, the JFK assassination, and 9/11 are all naturally understood as the stuff of unimaginable plots, unspeakable cover-ups, and unseen forces.
The guys who made The Men Who Stare at Goats can't quite decide whether this syndrome is risible or heavy or simply far-out. Perhaps hoping to produce a receptive viewer with hypnosis, their movie opens with a bug-eyed close-up of a would-be psychic and the mind-fucking assertion that "more of this is true than you would believe."
George Clooney's latest production was directed by Grant Heslov, who wrote the Good Night and Good Luck screenplay, and loosely adapted from gonzo journalist-filmmaker Jon Ronson's 2005 account of the U.S. Army's adventures in paranormality. And would you believe that it's meant to be a comedy? Perhaps in 1967 and under the right pharmaceutical conditions, it might have seemed so.
Ronson's book takes its title from experimental attempts to induce goat coronaries with the evil eye. It traced a circuitous path from the CIA's Eisenhower-era LSD experiments to more recent applications of musical mind control. Heslov's movie focuses on Ronson's greatest scoop, namely the battalion of occultist commandos — here called the New Earth Army — cooked up by a Viet vet colonel gone New Age. Stumbling through an obstacle course of flashbacks, the movie sends a hapless American reporter (Ewan McGregor) into the cauldron of Desert Storm, where, meeting one of these Jedi warriors, the New Earth Army's super-intense, one-time champion goat-starer (Clooney), he loses a smidge of his smirk.
Clooney's demonstration of cloud-busting creates a few sitcom complications. But The Men Who Stare at Goats picks up (however briefly) only with the introduction of Jeff Bridges. He's a man who survived near-death in 'Nam and subsequently parboiled his brain in the hot tubs of Big Sur. Then he sold the brass on the notion of the New Earth Army: "We'll be the first superpower to have superpowers!" Bridges' liberation training, delivered with a maximum of happy-go-lucky Dudeness, is a regimen that mixes High Times with high colonics, mass Buddhist prayer, and free-form dancing to Billy Idol's greatest hit. The grooviness grinds to a halt (as does the movie) when this cheerful shaman is outmaneuvered by Kevin Spacey's Mr. Bad Vibes.
An uptight psychic party pooper, Spacey effects a coup and leads Bridges' band of brothers over to the dark side, privatizing the force by outsourcing psy-ops to his own company and purging the New Earth Army of its touchy-feely, transcendental "hippie crap." It's almost like a metaphor for America going from bad (the wacky spectacle of soldiers training to be fighting monks) to worse (Spacey directing soldiers to subject POWs to brain-destroying sound loops of Barney the Dinosaur singing "I Love You") and back again! (The happy ending is a climactic hootenanny involving the old CIA fantasy of dumping acid in the water supply.)
Despite a backbeat of perky music and the sarcastic voice-over meant to lubricate the action, The Men Who Stare at Goats lacks pizzazz. The movie isn't funny enough to work as farce, but it's far too dippy to take seriously. What's mildly exasperating is that there is an actual quest involved: The Men Who Stare at Goats goes out to the desert in search of its tone — and never finds it.