Once upon a time in America…ok, to be more precise in 1979, a secret unit within the US Army was established by the most gifted minds. Defying all known accepted military practice – and indeed, fundamental laws of physics – they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, persuade his enemies that they don’t have to kill them and, perhaps most chillingly, stop the heart of a goat just by staring at them – even though the goats firmly stared back. Yes, those men were dead serious.
Back to 2002. A newspaperman named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) from Ann Arbor interviews a goof who tells him he used to be a member of the New Earth Army, a super-secret unit of paranormals, trained as stealth weapons. Wilton, although distrustful at first, decides the man was telling the truth. However, a sudden divorce forces him to drop the issue for a while. Heartbroken and hell-bent on proving to his ex he is (and has always been) the real macho, he flies to Kuwait, hoping to cross into the war zone and to do some serious kick-ass reporting.
In a hotel lobby full of other gung-ho journalists, Wilton meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a guy who claims to be a former member of the U.S. Army’s New Earth unit as well but, contrary to that previous goof, he was actually one of the best, a real Jedi warrior, nothing less. Wilton learns how it started: an acidhead Vietnam veteran named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), wounded in action, successfully sold the Army the notion of fighting men who could transcend physical limitations. Now Cassady and Django are once again needed as the war in Iraq is becoming more and more difficult to win. Wilton decides to join them. Will he become a Jedi? You bet. ;p
It was one of the funniest war comedies I’ve seen so far. Yes, despite the less-than-stellar rating on various sites I enjoyed that one thoroughly. Firstly, because of its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ bent . Then, because the comical clash between the New Age culture of flower-children and the rigid army training was spot-on and very ingenious. As usual with the best stories The Men Who Stare at Goats was inspired by real life events, described in Jon Ronson’s non—fiction bestseller of the same name. If you wonder let me ensure you the whole premise sticks actually very close to the truth – since the endgame of Vietnam, the US military has been financing a research unit specialising in psychic new age warfare, inspired by reports that the Soviets were doing the same. Their methods were highly unorthodox to say the least of it.
Drug experimentation? True. American troops were doused with everything from concentrated cannabis oil to LSD — at times, without their knowledge. The CIA have become allegedly so enamored of acid the agency had to issue a memo instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked in any circumstances – imagine that.
Hippie Army? True. Lt. Col. Jim Channon dove deep into the New Age movement, and came back to the military with a most alternative view of warfare — one in which troops would carry flowers and symbolic animals into battle. Much of the artwork from the movie’s New Earth manual is lifted straight from the Channon original handbook.
Psychic spies? True. The non-fiction book which serves as the movie’s basis features Colonel John B. Alexander. He served as a Special Forces commander in Vietnam and spent decades promoting the use of psychics and “remote viewers” for national security. In 2007, Sharon Weinberger interviewed Col. Alexander in some depth on the military use of witches. “They were doing palmistry, crystal ball kinds of stuff,” he admitted.
Ok, back to the movie. Repeated Jedi references were really hilarious because, after all, McGregor was in those prequels. The other funny bits include the “dim mak” or the “death touch” which, surprise, surprise, can take 18 years to take effect, and the fact that Iraqi taunt American soldiers that their “wives are back home having sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds”.
Apart from that the movie features Kevin Spacey, one of my favourite actors, who plays Larry Hooper, the sinister ‘serpent in the paradise’. Although without any special gifts, his character, Hooper, tried to make a career in the special unit by manipulating, scheming and, finally, snitching on Django. Spacey can play anything but in my opinion he is the best as a baddie. Here he really carried the second part of the movie, a bit lackluster when it comes to the performance of other actors. Even though the director had Clooney, Bridges and McGregor on board, it was, from time to time, just a big cast standing professionally in place with absolutely no controlling intelligence to guide them. Oh well – some movies you watch for the artistry, some you watch for the laughs. I laughed during this one so I suppose the director could say ‘mission accomplished’.
A likable, lightweight, absurdist comedy about the US Army and their flirt with New Age. Don’t expect anything ground-breaking – it is wacky, amusing and that’s about it. If there are truths to be drawn from the military’s use of men to locate hostages psychically, they’re not evident here. However if you are curious whether war can be waged with love, flowers, eagle feathers and assorted paranormal techniques — with a few martial arts moves thrown in- you might want to watch this one. By the way some goats were really handsome – definitely worth watching. ;p
My source of the secret but real New Age Army program: