Based upon the non-fiction novel by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats tells of a military unit that specialises in the training of ‘super soldiers’, soldiers with supposed pyschic powers. Whilst in Iraq, investigative reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) happens upon this bizarre ‘Jedi’ training programme after meeting Lyn Cassady, played for laughs by George Clooney. Lyn is a member of these so-called ‘Jedis‘, and through a number of flashbacks informs Bob of the exact details of this highly secretive unit.
Before the films begins we are told that ‘more of this true than you would believe’, paving the way for a great deal of artistic licence, with the film deciding to err on the side of fiction. By failing to come to a concrete answer on the existence and factuality of these ‘Jedis‘, the film is neither true to life nor entertaining, and this ambiguity causes the film to suffer as a result. Its inability to decide if it is a heightened satire or a comedy ensures that the film ends up merely confused and unable to deliever on either account.
Despite the inclusion of Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, the cast is surprisingly lacklustre. McGregor’s attempt at an American accent is appalling, whilst Clooney disappointingly holds none of his usual charisma. Through its narrative structure of jarring cliched flashbacks lazily serving as plot development, the film is disjointed, and despite having a relatively short running time feels far longer than is necessary. The plot devices employed are tired and clumsy: attempting to create sympathy and likeability for Bob through his wife’s departure in the opening of the film, or demonstrating the ‘Jedis‘ flagrant disregard for the standard military fare by showcasing a hippie love-in montage, with long hair in place of buzz cuts.
With little narrative, agenda or purpose the film becomes meaningless: failing to serve as an anti-war film, the attempts at comedy sit uneasily with its sensitive context. The Men Who Stare at Goats has potential, and treated in the right way could have proven to be an entertaining satirical examination of military madness, but with a plot that is almost non-existent and convoluted at best it simply makes for a dull and thoroughly dreary film.