The Men Who Stare At Goats is about warrior-monks with psychic powers, who call themselves Jedis over and over again. But the movie's structure also echoes the original Star Wars trilogy, and it's full of fun Lucas riffs. Spoilers below...
In Men Who Stare At Goats, Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton a reporter who's trying to escape from his boring life, so when he gets wind of a secret military program from the 1980s to create "Jedi" soldiers, he follows the story. At first, you think that he's just a very off-beat embedded journalist, following the semi-retired Jedi Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) around, but it becomes clear that Wilton is getting more out of this than just a story: He's becoming Cassady's Padawan and learning to become a Jedi himself.
McGregor, of course, played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the three Star Wars prequels, and the film winks at this fact a few times, when Clooney says McGregor knows nothing about being a Jedi. But actually, in many ways, this is the Star Wars movie I wish McGregor had starred in before — it's about learning the ways of the Jedi, and seeing the contradictions inherent in the phrase "warrior-monk."
In Goats, which is based very loosely on the real-life story of the New Earth Army, we discover that the U.S. Army developed a secret program, following the humiliation of Vietnam, to fight a new way. And this involved developing psychic powers, but also letting in some of the counterculture's spirit of anarchy and playfulness. Drugs, long hair and crazy paintings. Unfortunately, one of the leading Jedi in this organization was secretly aligned with the Dark Side (this is actually explictly said at least once) and he corrupts the organization, tarnishing the other leading Jedis and turning one of them into his henchman of evil. So in the end, McGregor is the movie's Luke Skywalker, learning the Jedi legacy and ultimately helping to restore the light side.
Along the way, Clooney doesn't just teach McGregor how to burst clouds with his mind: he gives McGregor a grounding in the spiritual discipline behind the Jedi way, with a mixture of battiness and sageness that's actually kind of intoxicating.
All of this is played with tongue pretty firmly in cheek, but at the same time, it's made pretty explicit. And the movie is as charming as McGregor, Bridges and Clooney can make it. Bridges, especially, brightens up the screen every time he turns up as Bill Django, the founder of the Jedi organization.
There's a parable, here, of the ways in which America itself has turned away from opportunities to become more peace-loving, more creative, and less exploitative of our natural resources and of each other. And the failure of the "Jedi" program to meld the hippie "peace and love" ethos with the military's buzz-cut culture doesn't just expose the fact that you can't be a soldier and a monk (in our military, anyway.) The culture clash also aims to say something about America, and the ways in which we've betrayed the promise of the 1970s peace movement.
Here's a personal share: I have an alarmingly low tolerance for Baby Boomer nostalgia and, after several years in the Haight Ashbury, my hippie kitsch allergy is at a permanent level of anaphylactic shock. And yet, there is something beautiful and hilarious about the scenes where Bridges transforms his army unit into a group of shaggy-haired, dancing oddballs. And something heartbreaking about seeing the Dark Side destroying the Jedis. Mostly, this is because Jeff Bridges and George Clooney are so much fun to watch, you don't care.
And like I said, Star Wars sits at the center of the movie's themes. At one point, Clooney says that the Jedi program flourished in the 1980s because Ronald Reagan was such a big Star Wars fan. Reagan's Star Wars, of course, was a missile defense program that many scientists claimed was impractical, but Reagan never let go of the idea. Star Wars is so many different things to different people: a glorious war story, a window into one man's personal growth, a parable of controlling your hatred and choosing peace... part of why the original trilogy was so powerful was that it spoke to so many people in so many different ways.
And in a way, Men Who Stare At Goats is as much about the legacy of Star Wars as is it as about the legacy of woo-woo New Age hippie culture. Our culture was so heavily shaped by Star Wars, it opened up different ways of thinking about the way of the warrior, as well as offering some of the most exciting battle scenes ever committed to film. How you view Star Wars says a lot about your outlook on the universe in general.
Goats is often hilarious and sometimes chilling, but it's not a perfect movie. In particular, the pacing is a bit lead-footed at times, and the story loses some of its impact as a result. The movie's mix of absurdity and scary war scenes definitely won't work for everybody — I liked this film quite a bit, but Entertainment Weekly gave it an F. But all in all, I found it an entertaining, thought-provoking ride — of all the oddball films that have come out lately (including The Box and Fourth Kind) I'd say Goats is the most fun, and the most entertaining. Mostly, it's Jeff Bridges and George Clooney obviously having a blast playing another pair of larger-than-life characters, and that's a goat ride I'm always willing to take.