Reality, wrote Philip K. Dick, is what’s still there even after you stop believing in it. Thus an enlightened man in our age of science may well speculate on the notion that our bodies, like the walls of the room we are in, are all made up of atoms. And atoms, for their part, contain a lot of empty space. So shouldn’t it be possible to somehow flexibly merge the atoms of one’s body with those of the wall and pass right on through? Of course, the wall may have something to say about it.
The wall, however, never stopped Gen. Stubblebine, the United States Army’s chief of intelligence in the early 1980s, from believing in mind over matter, despite the damage to his nose. (So much for the school of hard knocks.) Stubblebine, who was also fascinated with supposed mystical superpowers such as levitation, psychic healing and time travel, was convinced that one day he’d walk right through that wall.
Stubblebine’s struggles with a cruel and uncaring wall are re-created — not without a touch of sarcasm — in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the Hollywood adaptation of journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, which explored the unlikely point of intersection between the stolid U.S. Army and the flighty New Age. It’s important to note that while the film creates a fictional plot, with plenty of scenes played for over-the-top laughs, the film’s premise and the bulk of its details are indeed rooted in fact. Or, as the film’s opening credit puts it, “More of this is true than you would believe.”
Director Grant Heslov does a creditable job of imitating the Coen Brothers’ style here; part of this is due to the fact he’s got Jeff Bridges reprising his “far out, man” persona from “The Big Lebowski,” and George Clooney in his best comedic role since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But Heslov — who also produced the Coens’ “Intolerable Cruelty” — clearly has a line in the same smirking deadpan with a touch of the surreal.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, an American journalist who tries to revive his stalled career by going to postinvasion Iraq to trawl for stories. He gets more than he bargained for when he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a furtive special-forces operator who was part of the New Earth Army, a secret unit of so-called Jedi Warriors who were trained in invisibility, intuition and the formidable “sparkly eyes” technique. More ominous was Cassady’s reported ability to stop the heart of a goat merely by — you guessed it — staring at it.
Wilton tags along with Cassady on his secret mission, which seems to involve him being psychically summoned to Iraq by his old mentor, Bill Django (Bridges), the ‘Nam vet who had founded the New Earth Army in an attempt to show “how love and peace could be used to help win wars.” Django’s vision was a new kind of spiritual warrior who would greet the enemy with baby lambs and a hug. (And he is based on the real-life Lt. Col. Jim Channon and his First Earth Battalion.)
Cue the flashbacks to the early ’80s and a bunch of camo-fatigue-clad grunts playing in djembe drum circles and engaging in primal scream therapy. If Django was the New Earth Army’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, then Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) was its Anakin Skywalker, a scheming careerist who was all too happy to walk on the dark side. As the film progresses back to present-day Iraq, the mind-expanding ideals of the Jedi are gradually warped into the mind-destroying psy-ops techniques that would wind up being used in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
The script, by Peter Straughan, delivers plenty of laughs and sharp one-liners, but the extensive use of flashbacks in the middle saps the forward momentum of the film more than a little. The zany closing scene, meanwhile, would be more appropriate in an ’80s Bill Murray film such as “Stripes” than one dealing with Abu Ghraib. A bigger issue is that the truly amusing aspect of this material is the extent to which it actually happened; the three-part documentary series based on Ronson’s research that aired on Britain’s Channel 4, “Crazy Rulers of the World,” is even more highly recommended.
And as for Gen. Stubblebine? He never made it through that wall, and was prematurely retired. Perhaps he should have consulted that font of pre-New Age Eastern wisdom, the “I Ching,” which notes: “Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective.”