This movie belongs to a special family of films which I call The
Amityville Horror group. The primary distinguishing characteristic of this
group is that they become much more interesting if you think they are
true. One might go further and say that they are only interesting if you
think they are true.
Start with the godfather of the genre, The Amityville Horror. It was a
financial success, even a bit of a phenomenon, when it was released
because people were filled with curiosity about paranormal occurrences
which really happened. Allegedly. If the film had been released as a
straight horror film, without pre-selling its base in reality, it would
have come and gone without attracting any notice. It's not, to be honest,
a very good movie, and it's not even particularly scary, but it does raise
the hair on the back of your neck if you watch it while thinking, "Wow,
this really happened." By the way, it didn't. When subjected to
investigation, the story proved to have major flaws.
- Local police records show that they were not called and no officers
were dispatched to that address, contrary to claims in the book.
- Weather records show there was no snow on the ground when the
mysterious cloven hoof tracks were supposed to have appeared in the
- The doorknobs destroyed by ghosts and goblins? Never replaced and in
perfect condition when the house was sold.
- The ancient tribal burial grounds upon which the house was built?
Eh, not so much. The local Native Americans called "shenanigans" on that
- The neighbors reported that there was absolutely nothing unusual
when the horror family lived there.
- The house is still standing. Various families have lived there in
the past thirty-some years, their lives undisturbed by anything more
supernatural than crabgrass.
- And so forth.
Since the story wasn't really true, you may now feel free to dismiss
that film as the inconsequential twaddle that it is.
Which brings us to the point. Finally. Sort of.
This is another of those movies. It is supposed to be based on a true
story, and we enter the theater with that premise, yet we end up watching
a film that becomes ever farther-fetched. Hell, if the stuff on screen
here is true, everyone should want to see this. But it isn't. The word
caption says that more is true than we would believe, but even that is a
stretch. I have no trouble believing the true parts.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is about a real U.S. military project which
was designated to develop a breed of psychic super-soldiers who could spy
from afar, become invisible at will, and walk through walls. I kid you
not. It sounds ridiculous at first, but I'm sure realize that mind-control
is an important part of military intelligence. The army has long been
experimenting with using hallucinogenic drugs and subliminal suggestions
as part of their interrogation techniques. It was not so long ago that
those ideas seemed far-fetched and mystical, but they turned out to have
some merit. While the merits of "remote viewing" and other extra-sensory
techniques were generally doubted, the more open-minded members of the
American high command reasoned: "What if there's something to it? Can we
afford to have a world full of Commie super-spooks without God-fearin'
American super-spooks to combat them?" Well, obviously not! The army
therefore put a
particularly eccentric major general in charge of intelligence and he
added some wild experimental techniques to the more traditional methods of
intelligence gathering. Other military groups, including special forces,
conducted their own experiments into paranormal capabilities. The
real-life story behind this unit was well documented in a book, also
called "The Men Who Stare at Goats," as well as in a three-part
documentary on the BBC.
can be found here.
That's the true part, and I have no trouble believing that it happened.
Military outfits regularly engage in experiments because they are always
looking for ways to stay ahead of the enemy. Sure, using paranormal powers
in spying sounds whiffy - but what if there's something to it?
And it sounds like a great film, doesn't it? General Stubblebine, who
believed he personally could have walked through walls if he could just
have concentrated properly, is like a real-life Doctor Strangelove. (He is
represented by a minor character in the movie, and those scenes do provide
some very entertaining moments.)
The problem with the movie is that the screenwriters apparently felt
that the true story behind the creation and development of those wacky
army projects was not good enough to form the basis of a film script, so
the story gets exaggerated lavishly, and the embellishments establish an
inconsistent tone. The author of the book never witnessed any credible
demonstration of extra-sensory powers, but the character representing him
in the movie witnesses some paranormal phenomena personally, like a guy
who could always predict the result of a coin flip. At times the film
seems to be skeptical of the hokey paranormal phenomena and ridicules the
credulity of the Army officers who bought into it, but then it turns
around and shows the super-soldiers actually doing the impossible. The
beginning of the film is often a hilarious look at an open-minded reporter
determined to chase down some madmen in pursuit of a story which is
certain to be great whether the paranormal exists or not. The ending of
the film turns serious and becomes a whole "Chief Broom escaping from the
asylum" thing, then disintegrates further by turning away from a healthy
skepticism and suggesting that some men can walk through walls, even if
the nutty general could not. In other words, it's really two movies as
different as the thin rockabilly Elvis and the bloated Vegas Elvis.
It's a good movie in many respects. I laughed out loud at least a
half-dozen times when the film was in its early rock-and-roll stage. I
smiled at the irony of a scene where Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) has to be
told what a Jedi is. And, to be honest, I found that some of the more
serious parts could be kind of stirring in their own ridiculous way, much
like the Vegas Elvis. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, The Dude, George
Clooney and Obi-Wan, a list which speaks for itself. I referred to Jeff
Bridges as The Dude because he is, in fact, playing The Dude Lebowski as a
Lieutenant Colonel. (That part, amazingly, is pretty much true. Long