If you believe the official denials, the US military has not been engaged in paranormal research, and specifically, has not been training psychic soldiers, for decades. The program allegedly known as "Star Gate" did not begin as a response to rumors that the Soviets were also engaged in psychic military research, and did not train soldiers and civilians (including spoon-bender Uri Geller) in the ways of psychic warfare. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, this goofy history (or fiction) is uncovered by a reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who tags along with a top (former) psychic supersoldier on a mysterious mission in Iraq. The supersoldier -- they call themselves Jedi warriors -- is Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and he just might be every bit as crazy as he seems. Or not.
Cassady is a master of such paranormal techniques as "sparkle eyes" and "cloudbursting" (which are just what they sound like), as well as various highly effective martial arts moves. He leads Wilton on a rambling road trip beset by the usual travails of an extended car ride in war-torn Iraq: kidnapping, IEDs, shootings. Their mission? Not even Cassady knows. Presumably, he'll know it when he sees it, or "sees" it.
Cassady is a member of the defunct New Earth Army, a New Age-y, pantheist, experimental army unit developed by a Vietnam vet named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) with the aim of winning wars through peace, love, and understanding. Bill's recruits are zealously devoted to their guru. Lyn is Bill's star pupil. Bill's most dedicated follower is wild-eyed General Hopgood (Stephen Lang). Then there's Larry Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the snake in this new Eden.
The movie is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson. "More of this is true than you would believe," announces an opening title of the movie. What you believe, or what anyone believes, is precisely the point. Or maybe it's the joke. At any rate, the movie presents everything as if it could be true, or at least, as if someone like Lyn Cassady could plausibly believe it to be true. He did, after all, once stare a goat to death. (The goat made the mistake of staring back.)
The cast plays it all more or less straight. Clooney's got an assortment of bug-eyed looks for Cassady's various psychic powers, and portrays him as a true believer, a man who has seen too much to not believe. That's not to say that Clooney plays it as straight as Bridges, who offers a variation on his acid-etched Dude character in *The Big Lebowski*. The movie's true straight man is Wilton, a desperate fellow cuckolded by his wife and trying to pick up the pieces of his life in a war zone. Tagging along with Cassady, he's more likely to be picking up pieces of his own body.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, as directed by Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, is a mild and somewhat scattershot spoof that is not quite as funny as its title. It gets most of its traction from its charismatic actors, all of them playing broken and desperate men in search of something -- redemption? revenge? renewal? The movie does not have much to say about war, or about soldiers, or even, really, about parapsychology -- is there a connection between blind faith in one's own higher powers and the kind of devotion to country and duty that inspires soldiers? Are these guys the real deal, or a bunch of crackpots? The Men Who Stare at Goats is noncommittal -- it looks at the whole business in a semi-skeptical-but-willing-to-be-persuaded way. It all adds up to a lot of transient wackiness and absurdity that's as fluffy, and dissipates as quickly, as those clouds Cassady likes to burst.