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The Men Who Stare At Goats

This tripped-out vision of peace-loving US army marines is a New Age joyride into the absurd

Imagine America. Imagine her soaring eagles and mystical deserts, her tall, glittering silver towers and her blue-eyed, super-hot surfer girls. Now imagine the nuclear missiles sleeping deep inside her silos. Imagine her lucrative porn industry and her illegal prisons, imagine her marines torturing naked Iraqi civilians and her burning towers… Imagine her state-of-the-art war machine and Dr Strangelove’s finger hovering precariously over a big, shiny red button.

Now imagine something else, something way better. Imagine that the good old U S of A (for effort) is actually a country defended by a team of crack marines who spend most of their time trying to burst clouds with their minds and walk through concrete walls. Imagine that she is a country with a top secret army programme devoted to the development of non-violent combat, the promotion of peace and love and, wait for it… astral projection. Now imagine said team of crack marines wigging out on LSD in the parade ground, comandeering tanks while under the influence, and disarming terrorist gunmen with stern Paddington stares.

It sounds kind of out there doesn’t it? But it’s not entirely fictitious. In fact, to some beautifully cracked loons, it was once almost a reality. Back in the dark days of the first cold war, the US government poured time, money and energy into a secret and deadly psychic weapon – The New Earth Army. These were "specially trained" pacifist psy-ops with one mission, to bring an end to all wars, everywhere. Nowadays, The New Earth Army are somewhat more famously known as The Men Who Stare At Goats. “It’s funny,” says George Clooney, co-director and star of a film about these wonderfully skewed human beings. “All of the wackiest things in the film are the real ones.”

The haplessly brilliant journalist Jon Ronson met some of the guys who were in the real New Earth Army about a decade ago, when he made the classic documentary that inspired The Men Who Stare At Goats. Sure, watching Ronson suffer at the hands of whacko devices like The Predator (a weapon designed to like, really hurt your fingers), and trying get to grips with a bunch of guys who believe they can make an animal croak just by staring at it makes for unmissable viewing, but how well does it translate into Tinsel Town fare? “I really enjoyed it,” says Ronson. “It wasn’t my movie and I watched it as an audience member. Nick Hornby said to me, ‘Don’t interfere. They know how to make movies, we don’t.’”

The Men Who Stare At Goats doesn’t have all that much to do with Ronson’s documentary and book of the same name (moving most of the “psychic action” to modern day Iraq), but thankfully, it’s just as funny. Suffice to say, the movie features Jeff Bridges as an ice-cream-obsessed, burnt-out New Earth Army Commander-In-Chief; Kevin (“I think working with George is about as paranormal as it gets”) Spacey as a wanna-be psychic “nobody-likes-me” malcontent; the aforementioned Clooney as a spaced-out misfit on a seemingly suicidal “vision quest” in war-torn Iraq; and Ewan McGregor as a broken-hearted journalist with some pretty serious reality issues. 

Obviously, this film doesn't really touch upon the grim and bloody realities of the Iraq conflict (apart from one brief torture scene, in which a bound man is forced to listen to the Barney The Dinosaur theme on repeat), but that was never the intention. Instead it invokes the zonked utopian ideals of the west coast New Age movement to send up the arrogant "nuke-'em-off-the-map" machismo of the US military, and the actors relish every second of it. So the burning question in this gonzo military love-in is whether Clooney et al tripped the light fantastic themselves in preparation for the roles? “I can admit that I walked into a lot of walls,” says Spacey, “… and busted a few clouds.” Yeah, sure but how about actually dropping LSD? “I’m on it right now,” he jokes wryly, as we suggest to an a grinning Clooney that both their day tripper performances were pretty damn convincing. “Really?” says Clooney, laughing. “And that’s coming from Dazed & Confused Magazine?!!”

Clearly our reputation precedes us…

The Men Who Stare At Goats is out on November 6

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