In a 2004 hilarious and mind-bending book, British journalist Jon Ronson recounts his efforts to uncover a loose network of military investigators with truly wacky ideas — from psychic spies to acoustic weaponeers to commandos who believed that they could stop animal hearts just by concentrating hard enough.
But that book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, was tragic, as well. These often well-meaning researchers inadvertently triggered a mass suicide in San Diego and contributed to the torture techniques used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
The movie adaption starts at the same zany place as the book: in the office of a general trying to use his psychic abilities to walk through a wall. But the film quickly adds familiar Hollywood tropes to the book’s sense of absurdism and dread. Ronson is transformed into Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor), a heartbroken Michigan newspaperman, trying to prove his manhood to his ex-wife by running off to Iraq. Waiting to cross the border in Kuwait City, he meets ace psychic spy Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), and the two immediately dash off on an improbable mission.
As the pair get deeper and deeper into trouble in Iraq, MacGregor retells in a series of flashbacks the rise and fall of the “New Earth Army,” a group of self-styled Jedi looking to transform the U.S. military (and themselves) into warrior monks — simultaneously more gentle and more lethal than any grunts that came before them…
The Men Who Stare at Goats most definitely has its moments — including what is certainly the funniest improvised bomb blast in the history of modern cinema. But it’s outclassed by Ronson’s book, and by the documentary based on it, The Crazy Rulers of the World. Truth wins this battle over fiction.