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Comment: What did you think of the movie?
Dusty: If I ever needed proof of how the dark side had taken the beautiful dream of what a nation could be and had twisted it, destroyed it — well, that was it.
Comment: You got that from the movie?
Director: Grant Heslov
Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan
Stars: Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Root, Jeff Bridges, Nick Offerman
Release Date: October 2, 2009 (United States)
Run time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
In a short prelude, U.S. Army General Dean Hopgood is painfully thwarted in an attempt to pass paranormally through a solid wall by simply running into it.
Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton’s wife leaves him for the editor. To prove himself, Bob flies to Kuwait to report on the Iraq War. He stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets retired U.S. Army Special Forces operator Lyn Cassady, who reveals he was part of a unit training psychic spies to develop parapsychological skills including invisibility, remote viewing, and phasing.
In 1972, Army officer Bill Django, after falling out of a helicopter in Vietnam, found his newly recruited men unable or unwilling to fire on a Viet Cong soldier before being shot in the chest. He then underwent a fact-finding mission prompted by a vision of a female Viet Cong soldier who says “their gentleness is their strength.” Django’s mission immersed him in the New Age movement so that, when he returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1980, he had long braided hair and a tattoo of an All-seeing Eye surmounting a pyramid on his chest.
Facilitated by the credulous General Hopgood, Django led the training of a New Earth Army, with Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper as his top students. The two developed a rivalry over their opposing views on implementing the New Earth Army’s philosophy. Lyn wanted to emphasize the teachings’ positive side, such as resolving conflict peacefully, whereas Larry was interested in the “dark side” of its military application.
Lyn takes Bob into Iraq. Kidnapped by criminals who want to sell them to insurgents, they escape with fellow hostage Mahmud Daash and are rescued by a private security detail led by Todd Nixon. Fleeing when the detail is caught in a firefight fiasco with another American security detail, Bob and Lyn continue on Lyn’s mission prompted by Lyn’s vision of Bill Django.
After their car is disabled by an IED Bob and Lyn wander in the desert. Lyn reveals that he had stopped a goat’s heart to test the limit of his mental abilities, and believes this evil deed has cursed him and the New Earth Army. It’s also revealed that Hooper conducted an unauthorized LSD experiment in which a soldier killed himself, forcing Django out of the Army.
Bob and Lyn are rescued at a camp run by PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychic and psychological experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. To Lyn’s dismay, Larry runs the firm and employs Django, now a depressed alcoholic. Bob learns the ways of the New Earth Army and they spike the base’s food and water with LSD and free the goats and captured locals, in an attempt to remove the curse. Lyn and Django fly off in a helicopter, disappearing into the sky “like all shamans“.
Bob returns to work as a reporter and writes an article about his experience with Lyn. He is frustrated that the story’s only portion to be aired is how the captives were forced to listen to the Barney & Friends theme song for 24 hours, which dilutes his story to the level of a joke. Bob vows to continue trying to get the bigger story out. He exercises his own psychic abilities and, following some intense concentration, seemingly runs through a solid wall in his office.
I love this movie for a lot of reasons. It is a very funny parody of military bureaucracy, and of the paranormal community more generally. There are a lot of excellent actors in this movie, who each deliver great performances. Within the comedy, the movie also tells a story which is based on true events, and filled with action, drama, redemption, and ultimately optimism about what is possible.
Ewan MacGregor and George Clooney are both outstanding. MacGregor’s Bob takes on the role of the young initiate into a world that’s bigger than he imagined, and Clooney’s Lyn represents a veteran of that larger world, whose motives and sanity both Bob and the audience do not initially trust. Kevin Spacey expertly plays the villain role in this saga. Jeff Bridges is highly entertaining as the founder of this sub-branch of the military.
A particularly fun part of this story for me is that it sources from a non-fiction book which details the real life project upon which the film is based. Here is a brief summary of the book from Wiki:
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004) is a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson concerning the U.S. Army‘s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The title refers to attempts to kill goats by staring at them and stopping their hearts. The book is a companion to a three-part TV series broadcast in Britain on Channel 4—Crazy Rulers of the World (2004)—the first episode of which is also entitled “The Men Who Stare at Goats”.
The book covers the U.S. Army’s efforts to utilize the paranormal in the 1970s and 1980, relates that to military activities in Iraq in 2004, before then linking back to CIA mind control programs which originated in the 1950s. As a result, despite the film’s sense of silliness, it actually touches on decades long and well-funded military projects.
One line from the movie really jumped out at me as the scientific concept behind the actual project. In essence, there is a belief that some people can effect reality through observation.
Lyn Cassady: Once you understand the linkage between observation and reality then you begin to dance with invisibility.
There is an experiment in the realm of physics which also plays with the idea of there being a connection between observation and reality. It’s called the “Double Slit Experiment.” (I found a strangely animated, but concise, video explanation of the real life experiment and imbedded it below.)
This experiment is one of the reasons that some scientists are beginning to embrace a belief that we might all be living inside of a created simulation. Who can say what might be possible through observation, or belief, inside a simulation?
The film closes on an incredibly strong note. After Lyn and Bill (Jeff Bridges) redeem themselves, rescue the goats, and fly away, they leave Bob behind to tell the story. In a callback to Lyn’s claim that he accessed his psychic power better while listening to the rock band Boston, the film score begins to play their hit song “More than a Feeling,” as Bob narrates the end of the story. As we in the audience hear Ewan MacGregor of all people say that we need the Jedi now more than ever, we see him phase through a wall as the movie ends. I have not enjoyed many film endings more than this one.
If you enjoy sci-fi comedies, I highly recommend The Men Who Stare at Goats. There are many great acting performances, a lot of laughs, it makes you think about life and reality, and you walk away from the movie feeling unaccountably good about life.
Let me know what you think about The Men Who Stare at Goats.