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The Men Who Stare at Goats

John Mulderig
Source: Catholic News Service

George Clooney stars in a scene from the movie "The Men Who Stare at Goats."
The Army's Cold War-era experimentation with psychic and paranormal techniques of warfare provides the seemingly outlandish, yet fact-based premise for "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (Overture).

Director Grant Heslov's adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson's 2004 best-seller of the same title registers as a mildly diverting, though disorganized comedy. But this satiric tale of soldierly excess also showcases pantheistic New Age spirituality and implicitly condones its two main characters' indulgence in some questionable high jinks.

Ronson's fictional stand-in is Ann Arbor, Mich., reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor). After his wife dumps him for a colleague, Wilton determines to prove his manly mettle by signing on to cover the Iraq War, then in its early "Mission Accomplished" stage.

Stranded in Kuwait, and shunned by his successfully embedded peers, Wilton is scrambling to find a way into the war zone when he encounters eccentric military veteran Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Though Cassady is posing as a civilian businessman, Wilton recognizes his name as that of a legendary figure in the Reagan-epoch New Earth Army, a secret unit dedicated to cultivating "warrior monks" endowed with such occult powers as remote viewing (the ability to see far-distant objects or events) and invisibility.

Cassady is headed in country and agrees to take Wilton along. As their problem-plagued journey—which involves them, successively, in a kidnapping incident, various car accidents, a spell stranded in the desert, and an urban shootout—progresses, Cassady regales Wilton with the history of the New Earth Army's rise and fall.

Founded by Vietnam vet-turned-hippie Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), the corps—its real-life prototype was known as the First Earth Battalion—flourished until the selfish machinations of a newcomer, Cassady's resentful rival Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, playing wonderfully easy-to-hate), jeopardized its future.

As we see in flashbacks, Django's training program included the group recitation of a prayer to the earth, one of the pagan devotions that his favored parotege Cassady continues to practice. We're also shown that among the transformative therapies Django sampled during his spiritual metamorphosis was nude co-ed hot-tubbing, though the scene is a short and relatively restrained one.

Peter Straughan's script effectively parodies various aspects of military psychology and behavior. But at times the outlook is woefully simplistic, as in a late-reel scene implying that all Iraqi prisoners of war are abused innocents who should be liberated forthwith. And the moral implications of a practical joke involving narcotics are ignored in favor of portraying it as an amusing lark.

The film contains rear and brief upper female nudity, neo-pagan religious practices, drug use, a dozen instances of profanity, and frequent rough and crude language. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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