The Men Who Stare at Goats

Movie Information

The Story: A fact-based -- at least in part -- comedy about the U.S. Army's experiments in the use of psychic powers. The Lowdown: An enjoyable, often very funny film that never quite crosses the line to be the defining satire it seems to have had in mind.
Genre: Satirical Comedy
Director: Grant Heslov
Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
Rated: R

Any film that combines the talents of George Clooney, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Bridges, features the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” on the sound track, and dares to call itself The Men Who Stare at Goats has to be onto something. And Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is. It is also, unfortunately, not the great movie I’d hoped for—and cautiously anticipated. Instead, it’s a likable little movie that feels more indie than most indies, isn’t afraid to shamble along, and, sadly, seems oblivious to the fact that it’s in dire need of a bigger ending. The film has a loopy charm that just gets it past the things that don’t quite work.

Just the right tone is set by the opening disclaimer that informs the viewer that what’s about to appear on the screen contains a lot more truth than is likely to be believed. In other words, The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on fact, but it’s anybody’s guess as to where the film takes those facts—and yet it may just be the things that are the most improbable that are true. I like that notion and I buy it. I know, for example, that the U.S. started researching the use of psychic powers for military purposes because the Soviets were doing it. The film adds to this that Soviets were doing it because of bogus reports (that they refused to believe were bogus) that the U.S. was doing it. True? I have no idea, but it’s ridiculous enough to be true and I choose to accept it.

The film tells the story of those experiments in a lopsided manner by framing the story around a reporter, Bob Wilton (McGregor). Wilton is trying to prove himself to his faithless ex-wife by going to Iraq and becoming an important journalist who Makes a Difference. Wilton’s problem is that no one is interested in what he’s attempting. However, a chance meeting with Lyn Cassady (Clooney) jolts his memory about an interview he’d done with a man who’d told him about the special psychic forces, the “New Earth Army.” That meeting—and the fact that Cassady decides that Wilton doodling the force’s symbol in his notebook is a sign—changes everything and sets the tale in motion with the pair of them crossing the border into Iraq on a completely undefined mission that probably isn’t a mission at all.

The film alternates between flashbacks to the original program and the current action. And this is all pretty skillfully accomplished and never bogs down the movie’s forward momentum. In fact, the film is fairly accomplished in its structure, managing to make its various points all dovetail into a single situation of the modern story. The problem with this is that once the movie gets to that point, the payoff is too muted to feel like a payoff. What you end up with is a fun—and sometimes pointedly satirical—ride to nowhere much. Making matters a little thornier is the decision to firmly come down on the side of the paranormal aspects of the story in the very last scene. These fellows should have studied the scene in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972) where Peter O’Toole maybe causes a coffee table to float 10 feet in space. We don’t actually see it happen, but it’s shot in such a way that it might have happened and the truth is left to you. That’s what this needed, and what it doesn’t have.

In the end, you have a fun, strangely sweet little movie that feels more than a little like a declawed variant on the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008). And that’s OK, but it’s not enough to push the film into the realm of anything greater than a very likable shaggy goat story. Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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10 thoughts on “The Men Who Stare at Goats

  1. Vince Lugo

    Good comedy films are rare these days and this looks like one of the few good ones. I look forward to seeing it, although I’ll probably have to wait and catch it on dvd.

  2. doc Mod

    The movie was very funny and The Small Faces Europes version of the Beatles but much more hype Itchy coo Park song was perfect for the movie.I would like to hear more of their music in more future American films.they were all the rage in Europe in the 60s and ruled the charts over there out doing the stones and the beatles from1965-1969 with a string of hits and concept Album Ogdens Nut Gone Flake which also hit #1.Itchy Coo Park was released in the states and shot up to#number 16 but the band didnt tour to push the song to number one at the states because they weren’t stage ready because they were in studio working on Ogdens Nut Gone Flake album and Autume Stone albums.They were red on stage when they toured Europe.They broke up before British invasion to the states 1968-69.A book called forgotten story by Paublo Heuwitt is a great read about this super mod of their last tours was down under where they were billed with the Who and they caused such a culture shock among youth the Government Of Australia banned the bands from plying ther again especially Pete Townsend!Furope tells that story of that two week tour.The movie was very funny and jeff Bridges,George Clooney,Kevin Spacey and costar was excellent.

  3. Ashevegasjoe

    I saw it on Vet’s Day, and I think it was great. The non-violent jedi-warrior concept is hilarious. As far as being “in need of a bigger ending”, I think if it had a bigger ending that would have came across as being contrived. For my taste, the ending was just right.

  4. Ken Hanke

    For my taste, the ending was just right.

    I’d be more inclined to feel that, I suspect, if the final scene had been handled differently. For that matter, the ending it has could have been made to feel bigger from a filmmaking standpoint without actually altering the screenplay.

  5. doc mod

    When San Francisco’s summer of love,flower power,Timonthy Leery and the LSD craze among hippies was going on there was a dfferent movement going on in England several years before in England and Europe and that was the MoD and Rockers and Carnaby Street and Fashion movement.The Small Faces ruled from 1965-1968-69 as the top band in Europe.Well there is actually a park in England called Itchy Coo Park where Mods and Rockers went to get nice(stoned).The Small Faces and that actual park are on the you tube video.Theres a couple of versions look for Itchy coo Park.You’ll see the animals and the Small Faces at itchy coo park!These Guys were light years ahead of the rest.Look at the video 40 years ago and its still in fashion and there are still millions of fans world wide.Who ever the director was of Men who stare at Goats was very cleaver to really understand the impact on culture this group had on Europe and America.It was very Nice. It was Europes Summer of love.This song really connected with the movie on both sides of the Atlantic!Brilliant!!!piece of work great great movie!!!!and song.

  6. Dionysis

    To doc Mod…as a big fan of the late Steve Marriott and The Small Faces, there are a couple of corrections to make.

    The book you mentioned was probably titled ‘All Too Beautiful’ by Paulo Hewitt. It’s a fascinating read alright. And the Small Faces never actually intended to make the album The Autumn Stone; it was a compilation of material, including songs that didn’t make it on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, other studio takes and some live material. In fact, their initial American release, on the Immediate label, titled ‘There Are But Four Small Faces’ was a U.S. release only.

    Any movie that features ‘Itchicoo Park’ is okay in my book.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Any movie that features ‘Itchicoo Park’ is okay in my book.

    That was kind of my feeling. We’d have apparently gotten a second helping of the Small Faces has we been given the original 135 minute cut of Pirate Radio, which contained “Lazy Sunday” in a sequence cut from the 115 minute version released here. I’ve spoken with a friend in Australia who tells me that the song accompanied a pub crawl sequence. (In the version we get, there is no scene of any kind where the main characters leave the boat.)

  8. Dionysis

    “We’d have apparently gotten a second helping of the Small Faces has we been given the original 135 minute cut of Pirate Radio, which contained “Lazy Sunday” in a sequence cut from the 115 minute version released here.”

    Well, if I end up liking the movie as much as you alluded to enjoying it, then it seems as the forthcoming ‘director’s cut’ of the DVD with twenty more minutes of footage is a must-have.

    I also notice that my spelling is getting bad; the correct spelling of the song mentioned is Itchycoo Park, not ‘Itchicoo’.

  9. Alina

    Excellent, I’m off to see it. And though I never replied to your suggestion to check out’The Ruling Class,’ I did, and I thank you!

  10. Ken Hanke

    And though I never replied to your suggestion to check out’The Ruling Class,’ I did, and I thank you!

    That’s gratifying to hear. Thank you.

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