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The Men Who Stare at Goats

The American military has always been at the forefront of technological innovation, often working on the fringes of scientific credibility in its constant search for new ways to locate and eliminate its enemies. At times, its eagerness to gain an edge over its adversaries has led it to some strange, dark places, many of which are chronicled in The Men Who Stare at Goats, British author Jon Ronson's true-life account of the U.S. government's efforts to create an army of "psychic supersoldiers" in the aftermath of Vietnam.

If you're not familiar with the world of psychic warfare (and really, why would you be?), the book's title refers to an experiment conducted during the 1980s at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in which specially-trained soldiers, using methods culled from the top-secret First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, attempted to stop the heart of a goat using nothing but the power of the mind. The ultimate goal, obviously, was to develop the skill for eventual use on enemy combatants.

Chock full of similarly wild yet credible stories, The Men Who Stare at Goats' strange-but-true subject matter lends itself perfectly to film adaptation. Its structure — a disparate collections of loosely-related vignettes covering over a thirty-year timespan — does not. Nevertheless, director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gave it a shot anyway, refashioning the material to such an extent that the movie is no longer "based upon" Ronson's book, but instead merely "inspired by" it.

Thankfully, Heslov wisely kept intact two of the book's greatest strengths: its lively, irreverent tone and its fascinating array of colorful characters. The latter is no doubt what attracted the film's star-studded cast, led by George Clooney as Lyn Cassady, a fidgety veteran of the "psychic spy" brigade whose chance meeting with journalist Bob Wilton, Ronson's on-screen counterpart (played as an American, ironically, by UK actor Ewan McGregor), provides the catalyst for the storyline.

As Cassady squires Wilton through the Iraqi desert en route, he claims, to contracting gig, he regales the awestruck reporter with stories of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age acolyte named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). In the early 80s, Django, now a ponytailed flower child, managed to obtain army approval to spearhead a pilot program that would to train a legion of "warrior monks" to read minds, pass through walls and disable enemies through a wide variety of non-lethal methods.

Any program like the New Earth Army is bound to attract its share of bad apples, amoral folk who aim to use its teachings to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the entire rotten orchard is represented by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a sleazy, manipulative charlatan whose devious machinations ultimately serve to bring down the entire operation.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is at its loopy best as Cassady cycles through various off-the-wall anecdotes of Django and his increasingly bizarre training methods. But it falls apart when Heslov attempts to weave it all into a coherent storyline, complete with a climax centered on a hairbrained scheme to spike the water supply at an American fort with LSD. It's understandable that Heslov felt compelled to invent something that could bring some resolution to the story, but getting everyone high on acid? It sounds like a gimmick stolen from one of the lesser Revenge of the Nerds sequels.

Needless to say, that last part wasn't in Ronson's book. rated this film 3 stars.