“More of this is true than you would believe,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats” cheekily informs us as it opens. And while its tone is high satire, even farce, the story it tells is not hard to believe at all. Military officials are portrayed as credulous, ineffectual, and petty. But they are also portrayed as candid, open-minded, and forthright. Much of what goes on in the military’s 20-plus-year exploration of what we used to call the “human potential movement” seems outlandish, but those were outlandish times. And one aspect rings especially true. According to this film, based on the non-fiction book by debunking Welsh journalist Jon Ronson, the real reason the US and the USSR entered into these “new age” programs was that each was convinced the other was doing it. So much for the efficacy of “remote viewing.”
That would be the power to see something mentally that could not be seen visually, either because it was too far away or on the other side of a wall. This division, led by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), whose long, gray braid hangs down over his fatigues, experiments with all categories of extra-sensory perception including telekinesis (the ability to affect objects without touching them), clairvoyance (the ability to read minds), and precognition (the ability to predict the future).
Jeff Bridges, as a Viet Nam vet who explores the new age fads of the 1970’s, one hot tub at a time, conveys slightly seedy optimism in the early days of the program and shows us the consequences of too much mind-bending at the end. Kevin Spacey is the ambitious psychiatrist who guides the program as it mutates from exploring what our troops can do to exploring how what we have learned can take away from the humanity of the enemy troops we capture. George Clooney centers the film as the most gifted of the program’s subjects, a man who seeks some way to integrate his abilities and experiences to find some meaning in the effort. But Ewan McGregor never convinces us that he is a dumped husband, a reporter, or an American. The reference to Jedi warriors just reminds us of his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” movies and makes his appearance seem like an in-joke.
The light-heartedness of the movie’s tone goes from pratfall humor to a wrenching depiction of the consequences of foolishness. It is smart enough not to be entirely dismissive of the idea that some or all people may have some uncharted capabilities we should try to understand and focus. But it is clear that none of that will do much good against a gun and that the efforts to pursue it may lead to extensive personal and organizational trauma. The main character is unhappy that his scoop is almost entirely ignored when it is published. The media picks up only on the side detail that Barney music was used to break the spirits of prisoners. The pernicious influence of that song appears to have been the only usable information produced by the program; something that any parent of a toddler could have conveyed with great enthusiasm. If this movie directs more attention to Ronson’s findings, that will be gratifying to him, but to us it should also be an important lesson about how one factor in allowing large organizations get out of control is that no one is paying attention.