The Men Who Stare at Goats


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 snow.
  • 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 one.
  • 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. Details 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 story.)

Top left: Blu-Ray info. Top right: DVD info.

Movie, plus:

  • Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion
  • Project “Hollywood”: A Classified Report from the Set
  • Audio Commentaries
  • Deleted Scenes

<<< left: Paperback


3.4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
3 James Berardinelli  (of 4 stars)
53 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
54 (of 100)





6.6 IMDB summary (of 10)
C Yahoo Movies

A C is an EXTREMELY low score from Yahoo's softball scoring system. It is rare for a film to score lower than that. Obvious, this film does not resonate with everyday audiences.





Box Office Mojo. It grossed $32 million while reaching a maximum distribution of nearly 2500 theaters. It opened in third place and stayed another week in the top five.




The female nudity is minimal. Just some hippies hanging around in hot tubs. On the other hand, the film's nudity percentage was quite high, since those are just about the only women anywhere in the story. (Apparently hot-tubbing with hippies was a necessary part of The Dude's research into alternative mind-sets.)

(There is also some male nudity: long-distance butt shots from George Clooney and Obi-Wan.)




Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It's a movie with excellent moments, even great moments, and yet the complete package seems like an OK movie with a great movie deep inside, crying to be released.