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Psychic Service

by Dave Durbach / 05.05.2010

“The US army has no alternative… but to be wonderful,” reads the New Earth Army manual in a new movie, inspired by Jon Ronson’s book on covert paranormal research in the US military. The Men Who Stare at Goats traces the rise and fall of the New Earth Army under Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) in the 70s and 80s, a time when psychic spies (“Jedi warrior monks”) were trained as a Cold War rejoinder to Soviet spoon-benders. Decades later, the top-secret project is uncovered by suburban hack Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), languishing in the Middle East to escape his ex-wife. In a hotel bar in Kuwait, Wilton meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) – a man so powerful he can stop the heart of a goat simply by staring at it – and joins him en route to Iraq. The unlikely pair suffer a series of setbacks (including a car crash, a kidnapping, a shootout between rival private security companies, and being stranded in the desert) on their way to a US army base where old associate Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and an aging Django have resurrected their Jedi-mind trick research. For the first time in decades, the team is reunited.

A movie with such a compelling cast is difficult to ignore. Ewan McGregor seems an oblique choice to play an American journalist, but there’s something absurdly fitting about Obi-Wan being taught the way of the Jedi by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges. Clooney and Bridges’ performances are as oddball as any of those with the Coen Brothers, while Spacey nails the smug asshole antagonist.

Goats is equal parts X-Files, Hurt Locker and any number of cornball war comedies (In the Army Now, Stripes, etc) – an odd but refreshing cocktail of science fiction, social commentary and satire. It’s a film that pokes fun at the US military machine, showing what might happen if armies were to be trained for peace, not war, cut to the soundtrack of Boston’s “More than a Feeling.” In the film’s profound silliness lies its message: war – what is it good for?

Incredibly, much of film is based on actual events. “More of this is true than you would believe” reveals a disclaimer at the beginning. Cassady and Django are based on real people – Sergeant Glenn Wheaton and Colonel Jim Channon, who devised the original New Earth Battalion – the literature of which can be downloaded here.

Directed by Grant Heslov, The Men Who Stare at Goats opened in South African cinemas on Friday 30 April.

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