Men Who Stare at Goats, The (2009)

Rated: R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: DDDC=D
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $68 million (32 U.S., 33 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written by: Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), based on the book by Jon Ronson (First major project)
Directed by: Grant Heslov (First movie, but he wrote Good Night and Good Luck)
Starring: Ewan McGregor and George Clooney
With: Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick, and Stephen Root.

In this loose adaptation of the real life military efforts to develop psychic powers for soldiers, a minor league reporter trying to get into the Iraq war finds himself suffering misadventures when he inadvertently meets a former “Jedi” soldier.
Entertainment Value: D
I think I’ve finally figured George Clooney out. He either plays himself (and this usually means the movie is quite good) or else he actually acts (in which case the movie usually stinks). Not because he can’t act, but for other reasons I still haven’t discerned yet. In any case, he’s not a reliable bet, and you have to look elsewhere to figure out what to expect from a movie. In this case, the screenplay writer is the key because this is every bit as awful as “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” The problem is that all these excellent actors play their parts right, but the substance of the thing is just plain strange and mediocre. It’s caught between trying to be two movies. It doesn’t fit as a simple documentary tell-all, nor does it truly work as a sardonically funny portrayal of exaggeration and oddity. If you like queer movies, then you may actually enjoy this. I did not. I guess it just wasn’t my sort of queer.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language D
One sequence of scenes about the new age movement shows people in hot tubs with some nudity. There is one extended scene with a group of people shown after unintentionally taking LSD. There is some violence, but mostly either slapstick (a man running into a wall) or against animals (implying they have been made to die by mind powers). The profanity alone would certainly make this R rated, which is moderately F-heavy.

Significant Content: D
The military is basically composed of weirdos and buffoons. There may be strange things in reality (then again there may not be), depending on your willingness to interpret the data a particular way.
Artistic/Thought Value: C The real question this movie raises and refuses to answer is whether the powers the military tried to develop actually occurred or not. And just when you think you’ve seen convincing evidence (shown to you anyhow), then something else the same person asserts looks extremely doubtful or even moronic. For instance, you have Clooney killing a goat with his mind (apparently) and then believing in a death touch that kills you either instantly or else decades later. Also, some credit must be given just for casting McGregor as the outsider learning about Jedi powers and the “Dark Side” of mental powers.

Discussion Questions:
~Based only on the things portrayed in this movie, do you believe the government program succeeded in producing special powers or did it only succeed in being credible to those who already believed in them? In terms of credibility, why is it important to not be too flaky when you are presenting an idea well outside of people’s conceptual comfort zone? How is this a useful piece of advice for Christians?
~In science, a hypothesis which can’t be disproved because its predictions are so vague they can be confirmed by any imaginable evidence is considered an empty or illegitimate theory. Why is it important for theories to be disprovable? Consider specifically the death-touch concept.
~How can we preserve our ability to be open-minded when it comes to ideas that may deserve serious attention while not simultaneously becoming gullible? How can you be properly critical in your thinking without also becoming merely skeptical?
~Do you believe in the possibility of psychic powers? If you do, are they natural aptitudes that some or all people might have or are they special gifts from God that can be used for His purposes like prophecy or against them by evil men? Consider, for instance, the magicians in Pharaoh’s court as opposed to Aaron and Moses.
~Many people have claimed that hallucinogenic drugs give them access to perceptions of reality unavailable through other means and even some extraordinary powers. Do you think it’s more likely that they are right or that the use of such substances merely distorts your ability to know the truth?
~On the one hand, America is more naturalistic than ever (disbelieving anything supernatural), and on the other hand more supernaturalist than ever (believing in spirit guides, psychics, and energy fields). What do you make of this? Which error is healthier in terms of being more conducive to bringing someone to faith in Christ?
~One of the ideas represented here is that the military often invests in things just to avoid being passed up by enemies (the psychic gap, for instance). Do you think in this case that the investment made sense at the time? Even if the development program had discovered nothing, do you think it was still worth investigating?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The scene with Clooney and the goat.
~Clooney cloudbursting.
~Spacey giving Clooney the death touch.
Overall Grade: D
If you want an infinitely better version of military satire particularly on the idea of gap strategy, go back to Kubrick’s classic “Dr. Strangelove.” And if for some reason you haven’t seen that, consider it your first piece of filmmaking homework from me. This is a case where making a mere documentary probably would have been far more interesting.

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